Sumerian disputations

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The Sumerian disputation or Sumerian debate is a topical short story created in the middle to late 3rd millennium BCE. Seven major debates are known, with specific titles. Some of the debates may be from ca. 2100 BCE.

The lord of broad wisdom, Enki, the master of destinies, ... our judge and adjudicator.
English translation of the story, at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - University of Oxford.
  • Enki knit together the marshlands, making young and old reeds grow there; he made birds and fish teem in the pools and lagoons; ... he filled the reed-beds and marshes with Fish and Bird, indicated to them their positions and instructed them in their divine rules.
  • Father Enki be praised!
  • To strut about in the E-kur is a glory for Bird, as its singing is sweet. … It shall utter its cries in the temple of the great gods. The Anuna gods rejoice at its voice. It is suitable for banquets in the great dining hall of the gods.

Bird (𒄷)

  • How has your heart become so arrogant, while you yourself are so lowly? … In the great marshes and the wide lagoons, I am your persecuting demon. You cannot eat the sweet plants there, as my voice harasses you. You cannot travel with confidence in the river, as my storm-cloud covers you. … How do you not recognise my superiority from this? Bow your neck to the ground!
    • To Fish
  • Strutting about in the royal palace is my glory.
  • You utter fool! Dumb, muddle-headed Fish! … Swine, rascal, gorging yourself upon your own excrement, you freak!
    • To Fish
  • Fish, you kindled fire against me, you planted henbane. In your stupidity you caused devastation; you have spattered your hands with blood! Your arrogant heart will destroy itself by its own deeds!
  • I am of first-class seed, and my young are first-born young!
  • Lord of true speech, pay attention to my words!

Fish (𒄩)

  • Bird, you are shameless: you fill the courtyard with your droppings.
  • Your squawking is to no profit; what are you flapping about? With your ugly voice you frighten the night; no one can sleep soundly. Bird, get out of the marshes! Get this noise of yours off my back! Go out of here into a hole on the rubbish heap: that suits you!
  • I am Fish. I am responsibly charged with providing abundance for the pure shrines. For the great offerings at the lustrous E-kur, I stand proudly with head raised high!
  • Bird, whatever great deeds you may have achieved, I will teach you their pretentiousness. I shall hand back to you in your turn your haughtiness and mendacious speech.
  • Enki, our judge and adjudicator.
*English translation of the story, at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - University of Oxford.
  • At that time, at the place of the gods' formation, in their own home, on the Holy Mound, they created Lahar and Ezina. Having gathered them in the divine banqueting chamber, the Anuna gods of the Holy Mound partook of the bounty of Lahar and Ezina but were not sated; the Anuna gods of the Holy Mound partook of the sweet milk of their holy sheepfold but were not sated. For their own well-being in the holy sheepfold, they gave them to mankind as sustenance.
    At that time Enki spoke to Enlil: "Father Enlil, now Lahar and Ezina have been created on the Holy Mound, let us send them down from the Holy Mound." Enki and Enlil, having spoken their holy word, sent Lahar and Ezina down from the Holy Mound.
    Lahar being fenced in by her sheepfold, they gave her grass and herbs generously. For Ezina they made her field and gave her the plough, yoke and team. Lahar standing in her sheepfold was a shepherd of the sheepfolds brimming with charm. Ezina standing in her furrow was a beautiful girl radiating charm; lifting her raised head up from the field she was suffused with the bounty of heaven. Lahar and Ezina had a radiant appearance.
    They brought wealth to the assembly. They brought sustenance to the Land. They fulfilled the ordinances of the gods. They filled the store-rooms of the Land with stock. The barns of the Land were heavy with them. When they entered the homes of the poor who crouch in the dust they brought wealth. Both of them, wherever they directed their steps, added to the riches of the household with their weight. Where they stood, they were satisfying; where they settled, they were seemly. They gladdened the heart of An and the heart of Enlil.

Ezina (Grain)

  • When the beer dough has been carefully prepared in the oven, and the mash tended in the oven, Ninkasi mixes them for me while your big billy-goats and rams are despatched for my banquets. On their thick legs they are made to stand separate from my produce. Your shepherd on the high plain eyes my produce enviously; when I am standing in the furrow in the field, my farmer chases away your herdsman with his cudgel. Even when they look out for you, from the open country to the hidden places, your fears are not removed from you: fanged snakes and bandits, the creatures of the desert, want your life on the high plain.
  • Every night your count is made and your tally-stick put into the ground, so your herdsman can tell people how many ewes there are and how many young lambs, and how many goats and how many young kids. When gentle winds blow through the city and strong winds scatter, they build a milking pen for you; but when gentle winds blow through the city and strong winds scatter, I stand up as an equal to Ickur. I am Ezina, I am born for the warrior -- I do not give up.
  • As for you, Ickur is your master, Cakkan your herdsman, and the dry land your bed. Like fire beaten down in houses and in fields, like small flying birds chased from the door of a house, you are turned into the lame and the weak of the Land. Should I really bow my neck before you? You are distributed into various measuring-containers. When your innards are taken away by the people in the market-place, and when your neck is wrapped with your very own loincloth, one man says to another: "Fill the measuring-container with grain for my ewe!".

Lahar (Sheep)

  • I am the glory of the lights of the Land. ... I am the gift of the Anuna gods.
  • After I have conferred my power on the warrior, when he goes to war he knows no fear, he knows no faltering.
  • An, king of the gods, made me descend from the holy place, my most precious place. All the yarns of Uttu, the splendour of kingship, belong to me.
  • Cakkan, king of the mountain, embosses the king's emblems and puts his implements in order. He twists a giant rope against the great peaks of the rebel land.
  • The watch over the elite troops is mine. Sustenance of the workers in the field is mine: the waterskin of cool water and the sandals are mine. Sweet oil, the fragrance of the gods, mixed oil, pressed oil, aromatic oil, cedar oil for offerings are mine.
  • In the gown, my cloth of white wool, the king rejoices on his throne. My body glistens on the flesh of the great gods. After the purification priests, the incantation priests and the bathed priests have dressed themselves in me for my holy lustration, I walk with them to my holy meal.

Debate between the Hoe and the Plough

O the Hoe, the Hoe, the Hoe, tied together with thongs;
the Hoe, made from poplar, with a tooth of ash;
the Hoe, made from tamarisk, with a tooth of sea-thorn;
the Hoe, double-toothed, four-toothed;
the Hoe, child of the poor.
The shepherd adorns the plain with his ewes and lambs.
English translation of the story, in the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - University of Oxford.
  • O the Hoe, the Hoe, the Hoe, tied together with thongs;
    the Hoe, made from poplar, with a tooth of ash;
    the Hoe, made from tamarisk, with a tooth of sea-thorn;
    the Hoe, double-toothed, four-toothed;
    the Hoe, child of the poor.
  • The mortar lies still while the pestle pounds.
    People fight with grinding stones.
    The sieve disputes with the strainer.
    What have you done to the one who is angry?
    Why are you scornful of Ezina?
    • The Storm.
  • Hoe, do not start getting so mightily angry!
    Do not be so mightily scornful!
    Is not Nisaba the Hoe's inspector?
    Is not Nisaba its overseer?
    The scribe will register your work.

The Hoe

The abundance I create spreads over all the lands.
  • What does my being small matter to me,
    what does my being exalted matter to me,
    what does my being powerful matter to me?
    At Enlil's place I take precedence over you,
    in Enlil's temple I stand ahead of you.
    • To the Plough.
  • I build embankments, I dig ditches. I fill all the meadows with water. When I make water pour into all the reed-beds, my small baskets carry it away. When a canal is cut, or when a ditch is cut, when water rushes out at the swelling of a mighty river, creating lagoons on all sides, I, the Hoe, dam it in. Neither south nor north wind can separate it. The fowler gathers eggs. The fisherman catches fish. People empty bird-traps. Thus the abundance I create spreads over all the lands.
  • Your work is slight but your behaviour is grand.
    • To the Plough.
  • I plant a garden for the householder. When the garden has been encircled, surrounded by mud walls and the agreements reached, people again take up a hoe. When a well has been dug, a water lift constructed and a water-hoist hung, I straighten the plots. I am the one who puts water in the plots. After I have made the apple-tree grow, it is I who bring forth its fruits. These fruits adorn the temples of the great gods: thus I enable the gardener to support his wife and children.
  • After I have worked on the watercourse and the sluices, put the path in order and built a tower there on its banks, those who spend the day in the fields, and the field-workers who match them by night, go up into that tower. These people revive themselves there just as in their well-built city. The water-skins I made they use to pour water. I put life into their hearts again.

The Plough

  • I am the Plough, fashioned by great strength, assembled by great hands, the mighty registrar of father Enlil. I am mankind's faithful farmer. To perform my festival in the fields in the harvest month, the king slaughters cattle and sacrifices sheep, and he pours beer into a bowl. ... The ub and ala drums resound. The king takes hold of my handles, and harnesses my oxen to the yoke. All the great high-ranking persons walk at my side. All the lands gaze at me in great admiration. The people watch me in joy. … My threshing-floors punctuating the plain are yellow hillocks radiating beauty. I pile up stacks and mounds for Enlil. I amass emmer and wheat for him. I fill the storehouses of mankind with barley. The orphans, the widows and the destitute take their reed baskets and glean my scattered ears. People come to drag away my straw, piled up in the fields. The teeming herds of Cakkan thrive.
  • Hoe, digging miserably, weeding miserably with your teeth; Hoe, burrowing in the mud; Hoe, putting its head in the mud of the fields, spending your days with the brick-moulds in mud with nobody cleaning you, digging wells, digging ditches, digging! Wood of the poor man's hand, not fit for the hands of high-ranking persons, the hand of a man's slave is the only adornment of your head.

Debate between Silver and Copper

*English translation of the story, at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - University of Oxford.
  • The brewer, who does not untie his belt in warm weather, whose hands do not dry the clay.
  • The barber, cutting the growth, removing the flourishing roots.
  • A hand without a wrist cannot work.
  • Come on! You will perform the work of your arms, you will help Enlil.
  • When the time of wet ground has arrived for me, you do not supply the copper hoes that chop weeds, so no one concerns themselves with you.
    When sowing time has arrived for me, you do not supply the copper adzes that make ploughs, so no one concerns themselves with you.
    When winter time has arrived for me, you do not supply the copper axes that chop firewood, so no one concerns themselves with you.
    When harvest time has arrived for me, you do not supply the copper sickles that reap grain, so no one concerns themselves with you.
    For your harvest or winter, you do not supply the copper adzes and chisels which build houses, not even a female lamb, so no one concerns themselves with you.
English translation of the story, at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - University of Oxford.
  • An lifted his head in pride and brought forth a good day. [...] Enlil set his foot upon the earth like a great bull. Enlil, the king of all lands, set his mind to increasing the good day of abundance, to making the night resplendent in celebration, to making flax grow, to making barley proliferate, to guaranteeing the spring floods at the quay, to making lengthen their days in abundance, to making Emesh close the sluices of heaven, and to making Enten guarantee plentiful water at the quay.
  • Emesh founded houses and farmsteads, he made the cattle-pens and sheepfolds wide. He multiplied the stacks of sheaves in all the arable tracts. [...] He brought a plentiful harvest into the temples, he heaped up piles of grain. He founded towns and villages, he built the houses of the Land. He made the houses of the gods grow like the hills in a pure place. In E-namtila, the holy seat of kingship, fit for high daises, he established abundance for the Great Mountain (Kur) Enlil.
  • Enten is controller of the life-giving waters of all the lands -- the farmer of the gods produces everything. Emesh, my son, how can you compare yourself to your brother Enten?

Emesh (Summer)

  • Tirelessly and constantly I place abundance upon the fields.
  • Enten, you should not boast about your superior strength after you have explained the grounds for your boasting. … Don't speak with a gaping mouth of your superior strength -- I will make known its shape and essence.
  • Enlil, your verdict is highly valued, your holy word is an exalted word. The verdict you pronounce is one which cannot be altered -- who can change it? There was quarrelling of brother with brother but now there is harmony. For as long as you are occupying the palace, the people will express awe. When it is your season, far be it from me to humiliate you -- in fact I shall praise you.

Enten (Winter)

  • Emesh, my brother, you should not praise yourself; whatever harvest produce you bring as gifts to the palace has not been made by your toil: you should not brag. As if you were the one who had done the hard work, as if you had done the farming.
  • The slave Emesh, the duly-appointed labourer who will never rest from his toil, a hired man who has to return to the fields of the Land for his own sustenance.
  • Emesh, my brother, … although you have gathered all things in the Land and filled the storehouses, in all my strength I am their owner when your limbs become tired.

Debate between the Date Palm and the Tamarisk

English translation of the story, at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - University of Oxford.
  • The Tamarisk opened his mouth and spoke. He addressed the Date Palm: "My body [...] the bodies of the gods. (The reference is to statues of tamarisk wood.) You grow your fruits but someone places them before me like a maid approaching her mistress. You do not provide the measuring vessels.
  • In his anger the Date Palm answered him. He addressed his brother the Tamarisk: "You say: "If people build daises for me and beautify them too, they certainly do not swear by the gods before clay." -- You may be the body of the gods in their shrines and people may name with a good name the daises of the gods, but it is silver that can pride itself as the overlay of the gods."

The advice of a supervisor to a younger scribe (Eduba C)

English translation of the story, at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - University of Oxford.
  • One-time member of the school, come here to me, and let me explain to you what my teacher revealed.
    Like you, I was once a youth and had a mentor. The teacher assigned a task to me -- it was man's work. Like a springing reed, I leapt up and put myself to work. I did not depart from my teacher's instructions, and I did not start doing things on my own initiative. My mentor was delighted with my work on the assignment. He rejoiced that I was humble before him and he spoke in my favour.
    I just did whatever he outlined for me -- everything was always in its place. Only a fool would have deviated from his instructions. He guided my hand on the clay and kept me on the right path. He made me eloquent with words and gave me advice. He focused my eyes on the rules which guide a man with a task: zeal is proper for a task, time-wasting is taboo; anyone who wastes time on his task is neglecting his task.
    He did not vaunt his knowledge: his words were modest. If he had vaunted his knowledge, people would have frowned. Do not waste time, do not rest at night -- get on with that work! Do not reject the pleasurable company of a mentor or his assistant: once you have come into contact with such great brains, you will make your own words more worthy. And another thing: you will never return to your blinkered vision; that would be greatly to demean due deference, the decency of mankind. [...] An empty-handed man's gifts are respected as such. Even a poor man clutches a kid to his chest as he kneels. There, I have recited to you what my teacher revealed, and you will not neglect it. You should pay attention -- taking it to heart will be to your benefit!
    • The supervisor to his learned scribe.
  • The learned scribe humbly answered his supervisor: "I shall give you a response to what you have just recited like a magic spell, and a rebuttal to your charming ditty delivered in a bellow. Do not make me out to be an ignoramus -- I will answer you once and for all! You opened my eyes like a puppy's and you made me into a human being. But why do you go on outlining rules for me as if I were a shirker? Anyone hearing your words would feel insulted! Whatever you revealed of the scribal art has been repaid to you. You put me in charge of your household and I have never served you by shirking. I have assigned duties to the slave (𒀴) girls, slaves and subordinates in your household. I have kept them happy with rations, clothing and oil rations, and I have assigned the order of their duties to them, so that you do not have to follow the slaves around in the house of their master. I do this as soon as I wake up, and I chivvy them around like sheep. When you have ordered offerings to be prepared, I have performed them for you on the appropriate days. I have made the sheep and banquets attractive, so that your god is overjoyed. When the boat of your god arrives, people should greet it with respect. When you have ordered me to the edge of the fields, I have made the men work there. It is challenging work which permits no sleep either at night or in the heat of day, if the cultivators are to do their best at the field-borders. I have restored quality to your fields, so people admire you. Whatever your task for the oxen, I have exceeded it and have fully completed their loads for you. Since my childhood you have scrutinised me and kept an eye on my behaviour, inspecting it like fine silver -- there is no limit to it! Without speaking grandly -- as is your shortcoming -- I serve before you. But those who undervalue themselves are ignored by you -- know that I want to make this clear to you.
  • Raise your head now, you who were formerly a youth. You can turn your hand against any man, so act as is befitting. [...] Through you who offered prayers and so blessed me, who instilled instruction into my body as if I were consuming milk and butter, who showed his service to have been unceasing, I have experienced success and suffered no evil. The teachers, those learned men, should value you highly. [...] Your name will be hailed as honourable for its prominence. For your sweet songs even the cowherds will strive gloriously. For your sweet songs I too shall strive. [...] The teacher will bless you with a joyous heart. You who as a youth sat at my words have pleased my heart. Nisaba has placed in your hand the honour of being a teacher. For her, the fate determined for you will be changed and so you will be generously blessed. May she bless you with a joyous heart and free you from all despondency. [...] For your sweet songs even the cowherds will strive gloriously. For your sweet songs I too shall strive. [...] They should recognise that you are a practitioner of wisdom. The little fellows should enjoy like beer the sweetness of decorous words: experts bring light to dark places, they bring it to culs-de-sac and streets.
    • The supervisor to his learned scribe.
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