Tag: Cuneiform

The inscriptions on the winged lions

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Long time ago, Sennacherib, the mighty ruthless king, posted this text on the wall (actually on a pair of winged lions – apsasāt – that guarded the entrance) of the palace he
built for his queen Tašmetum-šarrat in Nineveh.

Here is the translation from Assyrian:

“And for Tašmetum-šarrat, the queen, the wife, my love, whose features Belet-ili (the goddess of creation) has made more beautiful than all other women, I had a palace of love, joy and pleasure built.

By the order of Aššur, father of the gods, and heavenly queen Ištar, may we both live long in health and happiness in this palace and enjoy well- being to the full!”

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The drinking God

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God/Ilu seated on his throne, as depicted on a Ugaritic stele. Note the horns on his head. (Museum of Aleppo)

 

The following text is from ancient Ugarit (located in modern Syria), a city whose textual archives from the 15th-13th centuries BCE have provided a huge trove of literary epics, mythic lore, and linguistic data.

Ever wonder where the phrases “hair of the dog” and “he looks like hell” first appeared?  Look no further.  This is the epic saga of how God (Ilu/El, the father god in Levantine religion) got so drunk that his sons had to carry him to bed, while their lady friends cooked up a hangover cure.  Really.


I. The Gods Feast

God slaughtered venison in his home, [1]
       livestock within his palace,
       and welcomed the gods to the feast.
The gods ate and drank;
       they grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.

Moon-God Yarihu prepared his goblet;
       like a dog, he clambered [2]
       underneath the table.
Each god who recognized him
       prepared him scraps of meat —
but each god who did not recognized him
       hit him with a stick, [3]
       underneath the table.

When Astarte and Anat arrived,
       Astarte offered him a rump steak,
       and Anat a shoulder cut. [4]
The gatekeeper of God’s house scolded them:
       “Hey! Why are you offering a dog rump steak,
       offering a shoulder cut to a mongrel?
He scolded God, his father: “He is sitting (there)!” [5]

II. God Over-Indulges

God invited in the drinkers;
       God sat down in his saloon.
He grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.
God headed back to his house
       and entered his chambers.
They loaded him onto Thukamunu and Shunamu, his sons,
       and the two chastized the groaning man, [6]
       he who had horns and a tail.
He soiled himself with shit and piss,
       and God fell down as if dead;
       God (looked) like someone descending to Hades.

Anat and Astarte began to hunt.

[The next several lines are nearly unreadable; the only legible phrases are “holy,” “Astarte and Anat,” and “and with them, she brought back.”  Most scholars assume that the women are hunting down the ingredients for their cure.]

As soon as she treated (him), he was suddenly revived.

III. The Medical Treatment

The following should be placed:
on his forehead, the hairs of a dog, [7]
and (on) the head, colocynth, and (on) his navel. [8]
At the same time, he should drink green olive juice. [9]

Source: The Marzeah in the Prophetic Literature: References and Allusions in Light, by John L. MacLaughlin (2001). pp.24–6. ISBN 9004099956. Quoted as fair use.


[1] “Venison” is used in the archaic sense of “any animal hunted for meat.”  The exact species of animal being eaten is unclear.

[2] Scholars are divided here; this verb may mean one of several dog-like activities: crawling, digging, or even swishing a tail.

[3] Alternately, Yarihu could be the subject: “if a god doesn’t notice him, [Yarihu] hits [the other god] with a stick.”  That alternative makes a bit more narrative sense, to be honest.  However, this version works better with my theory about the dog hair (cf. note 7): for whatever reason, the gods give a painful hangover to drinkers whom they don’t recognize.

[4] Again, the meat identifications are a bit tentative.  But if they are accurate, they may be allusions to the goddess’s associations; Astarte’s domain included sexuality, connected to the thigh (cf. Enkidu throwing the Bull of Heaven’s thigh at Ishtar [=Astarte]), while Anat was associated with warfare and the strength of arm and shoulder.

[5] Most translations include “He is sitting” with the next stanza; either this line continues the direct speech (“Scold God, his father!”) or adds an addendum (“He [also] scolds God, his father.”).  The problem with that line division is that it creates an odd redundancy: Ilu is sitting, then calls for his fellow drinkers, then sits again.

[6] Here I follow Noegel, who reads the Ugaritic ḥabayu as an epithet for Ilu, mumbling and groaning like a mooing cow in his intoxication.  Since Ilu is frequently described as a bull, the horns and tail are not surprising attributes; they may emphasize that while drunk, he resembles a strong but unthinking animal.  (Fun fact: Ilu’s title is specifically ṯôru Ilu, “Bull God.”  Ṯôru is probably one of the rare words so ancient that it’s shared by Semitic and Indo-European languages — so it’s ultimately related to “taurus” and “steer.”)  The other alternative, which was the mainstream translation for many years, translates Habayu as a demonic figure who appears on the scene, frightening Ilu until he soils himself.  (If this reading is accurate, an allusion to the horned Habayu may also appear in the Hebrew Bible in Habakkuk 3:4.)

[7] Placing dog hairs on the forehead clearly has no modern medical value; while the motives behind ancient magico-medical treatments are not always straightforward, the fact that a dog is mentioned twice earlier in the story is likely no coincidence.  (A dog may have appeared a third time in the textual gap if it was the women’s prey; their verb does normally refer to animal hunting, not vegetable harvesting.)  There’s no scholarly consensus about the purpose of the ingredient.  My very tentative guess is that the dog hairs ritually place the patient in the role of Yarihu, who acted “like a dog” in the first section of the story.  Despite the chastising of Ilu’s gatekeeper, the gods feed Yarihu scraps of meat and allow him to enjoy his drink — unless they don’t recognize him, in which they beat him, perhaps causing the headache of a hangover.  In contrast, Ilu’s attempt at maintaining dignity leaves him unconscious in his own excrement.  By humbling himself to the role of a dog, the patient will receive divine pity.

[8] There is some dispute over the meaning of this line, although “head” and “his navel” are pretty straightforward.  The term in between (PQQ) could be two words — “mouth (and) throat” — or a single name, perhaps for a plant.  In Akkadian, peqqūtu/peqû is a name for the colocynth, a bitter melon that’s widespread in the Middle East.  The colocynth was used extensively in medical concoctions in the ancient world, and its notoriously bitter flavor might further have shocked an unconscious patient into wakefulness, so I have gone with this translation.  If the term means “mouth (and) throat,” it could refer either to applying the dog hairs to those locations on the patient, or to sacrificing a dog and literally placing its head, mouth, and throat on the patient.

[9] “Green olive juice” is, more literally, “the blood/juice of an olive of autumn.”  Since ripe olives are harvested in November/December, an “autumn olive” may have been a green (i.e. unripe) olive, as contrasted to a ripe “winter olive.”  The oil from unripe olives is especially bitter and grassy, so it could have assisted the colocynth in waking the patient.  However (contra most translations), I don’t think that this necessarily refers to oil, since Ugaritic has another perfectly good word for oil.  Amurca, the liquid byproduct of olive oil production, is bitter-tasting and dark-colored, and it inhibits food-borne pathogens.  The dark color would explain the term “blood” (not the normal term for juice, let alone oil), and the bitter flavor and antibiotic properties would explain its medical use.

 

Customer Complaining Letter

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A complaint letter to a merchant named Ea-nasir from a customer named Nanni. Written in cuneiform, it is considered to be the oldest known written complaint in history.

Ea-Nasir travelled to the Persian Gulf to buy copper and return to sell it in Mesopotamia. On one particular occasion, he had agreed to sell copper ingots to Nanni. Nanni sent his servant with the money to complete the transaction. The copper was sub-standard and not accepted. In response, Nanni created the cuneiform letter for delivery to Ea-nasir. Inscribed on it is a complaint to Ea-nasir about a copper ore delivery of the incorrect grade, and issues with another delivery. He also complained that his servant (who handled the transaction) had been treated rudely. He stated that, at the time of writing, he had not accepted the copper but had paid the money.

“Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.”

The tablet was acquired by the British Museum in 1953. It was originally found in the ruins of Ur. It was translated in 1967 by Leo Oppenheim and was published in his book Letters from Mesopotamia. It dates from 1750 BCE. It is 11.6 centimetres (4.6 in) high, 5 centimetres (2.0 in) wide, 2.6 centimetres (1.0 in) thick, and slightly damaged.

The Flood Tablet

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The most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.

Relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, From Nineveh, northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC.
The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC) collected a library of thousands of cuneiform tablets in his palace at Nineveh. It included letters, legal texts, lists of people, animals and goods, and a wealth of scientific information, as well as myths and legends.
The best known of these was the story of Gilgamesh, a legendary ruler of Uruk, and his search for immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a huge work, the longest piece of literature in Akkadian language  (the language of Babylonia and Assyria). It was known across the ancient Near East, with versions also found at Hattusas (capital of the Hittites), Emar in Syria and Megiddo in the Levant.
This, the eleventh tablet of the Epic, describes the meeting of Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood. He built a boat and loaded it with all his precious possessions, his kith and kin, domesticated and wild animals and skilled craftsmen of every kind.
Utnapishtim survived the flood for six days while mankind was destroyed, before landing on a mountain called Nimush. He released a dove and a swallow but they did not find dry land to rest on, and returned. Finally a raven that he released did not return, showing that the waters must have receded.
This Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum. On reading the text he … jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.
Courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London. Photo taken by Jessica Spengler.

A War Scene

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Gypsum wall panel relief from the palace of Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III 745–727 BCE

Two Assyrian cavalrymen charging against enemies. Both have short curly hair, pointed beards, and wear a kind of pointed helmet with earflaps. The first horseman wears a fringed tunic, highly ornamented with discs set in squares, and a cuirass. The horses have the usual triple tasselled decoration on top of their heads, and two tassels attached to their plaited collars. The second horseman is spearing the horse of an enemy which is sinking down. The headless rider pitches forwards. He wears a garment held by a multiple girdle and low boots. Behind the Assyrian horses a headless figure, dressed in a long garment, lies upside down. He also seems to wear boots with slightly upturned toes. Above the slain a vulture flies to the right carrying entrails in its claws and beak.

NeoAssyrian
Excavated by: Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1849
Nimrud, Mosul
Central Palace, reused in the south west palace
Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III 745–727 BCE
British museum