Sumerian proverbs

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Sumerian proverbs are short expressions of popular wisdom from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer.


Possessions are flying birds -- they never find a place to settle.
A man's personal god is a shepherd who finds pasturage for the man. Let him lead him like sheep to the food they can eat.
The lion who lives a life of compassion will receive it.
Oh Utu, you are my judge: pronounce my judgement! You are my decision-maker, decide my case! The dream that I have seen -- turn it into a favourable one! Let me walk straight, so that I can catch up with my companion!
That my friend should be well is our wish, and that our enemies should be gone! May those friendly to you reach their goal as a ship does a friendly harbour! May your enemy, like the flood waters of a river, return to his city.
A loving heart builds houses. A hating heart destroys houses.
When a trustworthy boat sets sail, Utu seeks out a trustworthy harbour for it.
Collections: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, unknown provenance.
  • You should not cut the throat of that which has already had its throat cut.
  • Possessions are flying birds -- they never find a place to settle.
  • Don't pick things now; they will bear fruit later.
  • He hurled his insult. He laid his curse.
    A curse which is reciprocated will be retaliated against with yet another curse.
    It is an insult resulting from an insult. It is a curse resulting from a curse. It is the constant renewal of destiny.
    To accept a verdict is possible. To accept a curse is impossible.
  • What comes out from the heart of the tree is known by the heart of the tree.
  • A plant as sweet as a husband does not grow in the steppe.
    • A variant has the word "desert" instead of steppe.
  • Girl, your brother cannot choose for you; whom do you choose?
    Girl, your brother is like me. A brother should let you live as would I.
  • He who does not support a wife, he who does not support a child, has no cause for celebration.
  • When I married a malicious husband, when I bore a malicious son, an unhappy heart was assigned to me.
  • You should not alienate their rituals!
    Where there are bonds, you should not destroy the place!
    You should not eradicate their place in the universe.
    You should not move the oxen from their places!
  • Let me tell you about my fate: it is an insult. Let me explain it to you: it is a disgrace.
    Were I to tell my neighbour about my fate, he would heap insults upon me.
    I looked into the water. My destiny was drifting past. I was born on an ill-fated day.
  • Fate is a dog, well able to bite.
  • Fate is a raging storm blowing over the Land.
  • If a scribe knows only a single line but his handwriting is good, he is indeed a scribe!
  • If a singer knows only one song but makes the sound pleasant, he is indeed a singer! [...] When a singer's voice is sweet, he is indeed a singer.
  • What kind of a scribe is a scribe who does not know Sumerian?
  • The scribe trained in counting is deficient on clay. The scribe skilled with clay is deficient in counting.
  • A chattering scribe's guilt is great.
  • A scribe who does not know how to grasp the meaning -- from where will he produce a translation?
  • The fox, having urinated into the sea, said: "The whole of the sea is my urine!"
  • Tell a lie and then tell the truth: it will be considered a lie.
  • For a donkey there is no stench. For a donkey there is no washing with soap.
  • Furrows are pleasant to a threshing ox.
  • Once I had escaped the wild bull, the wild cow confronted me.
  • May the city build like me! May the Land live like me!
  • One should not remove what belongs to my mistress Inana.
  • The good thing is to find it; the bad thing is to lose it.
  • Their pleasure, their discomfort. Their discomfort, their pleasure.
  • He who shaves his head acquires ever more hair.
  • Hand added to hand, and a man's house is built up.
  • I will feed you even though you are an outcast. I will give you drink even though you are an outcast. You are still my son, even if your god has turned against you.
  • To eat modestly doesn't kill a man, but to covet will murder you. To eat a little is to live splendidly.
  • A hand will stretch out towards an outstretched hand. A hand will open for an opened hand.
  • When the sun is setting outside so that you cannot even recognise the hand in front of you, go indoors!
  • As long as you live you should not increase evil by telling lies; for if you do, to succumb will be your lot.
  • Weighing scales made with sinews are a trap made for the feet; a man should not take a merchant for his friend.
    • Variant: "Scales made with sinews are a trap contrived of dishonesty; should a man then take a merchant for his friend?"
  • Nanni cherished his old age. [...] He captured Simurrum, but [...] he never saw mighty kingship. Thus Nanni was carried off to the nether world.
    • Variant: Nanni appreciated his old age. He built Enlil's temple but did not complete it. [...] He captured Simurrum, but did not suppress it. In misery [...] thus Nanni was brought to the nether world depressed at heart.
  • Nanni cherished his old age: "I am what an old man should be."
  • One cannot drag out the weak, one cannot hold back the strong.
  • He who insults is insulted. He who sneers is sneered at.
  • As the sun rises, decisions are made. By the time the sun is up, kingship is conferred.
  • The battle-club would not find out your name -- it would just find your flesh.
  • Enlil's temple is a summation of accounts. The temple manager is its overseer.
  • You speak with me and I speak with you.
  • The fool is garrulous.
  • Where there is no grain, this is a sign of vengeance turned towards a city. Where there are no reeds, it is the worst of all poverty.
  • When a man comes forward as a witness, saying: "Let me tell you what I know about him", but does not know the relevant information, it is an abomination to Suen.
    • A variant names Utu instead of Suen.
  • Flies enter an open mouth.
    • A variant is present in Jacula Prudentum (1651) by George Herbert: Into a mouth shut flies flie not.
  • Offerings create life.
  • If it is too sweet for him, let him eat salt. If it is not too sweet for him, let him eat licorice.
  • Before the fire has gone out, write your exercise tablet!
  • A man's personal god is a shepherd who finds pasturage for the man. Let him lead him like sheep to the food they can eat.
  • As long as the boasters haven't departed, their mouths make me uneasy.
  • He who entered Elam -- his lips are sealed.
    He who has to live in Elam -- his life is not good.
  • Between the basket and the boat are the fields of Simurrum.
  • Whether it is roasted or not, you should sprinkle the grain.
  • Let me drink beer shandy and sit in the seat of honour!
  • My drink is a river. The place where I sleep is a place of reed mats.
  • The sun never leaves my heart, which surpasses a garden.
  • If the sieve is not shaken, his flour will not drop from it.
  • When present, it was considered a loincloth; when lost, it is considered fine clothing.
  • If the leader is being devoured by a fire, those behind him don't say: "Where is the leader?"
  • When righteousness is cut off, injustice is increased.
  • What is placed in the fire has a valuable role to play but leaves nothing behind when it's gone.
  • He could not overcome his fears, so he cut off what was fuelling them.
  • The lion who lives a life of compassion will receive it.
  • If a dog snarls, throw a morsel into his mouth.
  • The dog has been taught to pay attention; as long as he pays attention, he may escape his chain.
  • He said: "Woe!" and the boat sank with him. He said: "Alas!" and the rudder broke. The young man said: "Ah god!" and the boat reached its destination.
  • Conceived by no father, conceived by no mother, the reed came out of the breast of the storm.
  • A pig which was about to be slaughtered by the pig-butcher squealed. (The butcher said:) "Your ancestors and forebears walked this road, and now you too are walking it, so why are you squealing?
  • A man raising his hand in anger does not see clearly.
  • A fox demanded of Enlil the horns of a wild bull. While it was wearing the wild bull's horns, it started to rain. But the horns rose high above him, so he could not enter his burrow. Until midnight the wind kept blowing, and the clouds brought rain. Afterwards, when it had stopped raining on him, and he had dried off, he said: "I shall return this feature to its rightful owner!"
  • The strength of my god completes my own.
  • He who knows but does not speak is a fool.
  • He spoke but did not keep his word. He keeps speaking but shies away from his responsibilities.
  • From the river, oh Inana, let my man eat.
  • A palace will fall of its own accord.
  • Oh whirlwind, I dispatched you towards Agade. What did you accomplish in Agade? The dream was favourable!
  • That my friend should be well is our wish, and that our enemies should be gone! May those friendly to you reach their goal as a ship does a friendly harbour! May your enemy, like the flood waters of a river, return to his city.
  • A man who behaves like a damp reed towards his fellow men does not tell the truth either.
  • Even a millstone will float in the river for a righteous man.
  • The owner of a house should reinforce the windows against burglars.
  • A crafty man does not transgress against his mother.
  • You subject yourself to rules -- as a thief does.
  • A house of debt is a house in whose interior no light shines.
  • The dishonest man stole silver; the honest man will earn his pay.
  • When dishonest men come to your banquet, they are troubled and try to hide it.
  • Let the favour be repaid to him who repays a favour.
  • The temple E-babbar, which Me-silim had built, was destroyed by Nanni, whose posterity had been cut off.
  • Utu is lord; you should fix your gaze on him.
  • The well-wisher is the mother of the refugee.
  • May the people wish you well. May your god grant what you are in agreement with.
  • You shouldn't give a lame man a staff. Enlil is his helper.
  • Let the herdsman whip the ox. Let the shepherd slaughter the sheep. Where there is no toughness, no man can go about his business.
  • After becoming a thief, one becomes an outcast.
  • No one is tall enough to reach up and touch the heavens. No one is broad enough to lift his gaze over the whole earth. [...] But you, who roar like a storm -- may you establish yourself like a lion. [...] No man can bring about your demise.
  • The poor man does not strike his son a single blow; he treasures him highly forever.
  • Whenever there is excess, an axe remedies it!
  • The chasing away of a younger son from the house of his father is an abomination to Ninurta.
    • Variant: Violent cursing and chasing away a son from his father's house are abominations to Ninurta.
  • A dishonest man chases after women's genitals.
  • No one walks together with him or directs their steps towards him. Life passes him by like water. He is dear to no just man, plague prevails over him. Like a worthless penny. [...] He is clothed with a garment as if a heavy punishment were assigned to him. Who is he? His name? A man sleeping with someone's wife.
  • Good is in the hands. Evil is also in the hands.
  • The heart does not let go of the good. [...] As if it were a fertile spot, the heart does not abandon the good.
  • Accept your lot and make your mother happy! Run fast and make your god happy!
  • Whatever I say, I will say it twice, and then I will repeat it again.
  • The liar is quarrelsome. He always lies. He always slanders. Treacherous! Malicious! Shifty-eyed!
  • Utu's glance is prayerful. Utu's heart is compassionate. A devotee of Utu is among the holy. Allotted by Utu to be fortunate, a [...] ship reaches the quay.
  • Although the number of unhappy days is endless, yet life is better than death.
  • To take revenge is an abomination to Ninurta.
  • When a trustworthy boat sets sail, Utu seeks out a trustworthy harbour for it.
  • To remove something from its proper place is an abomination to Ninurta.
  • Fear of god creates good fortune. Lamentation absolves sin. Offerings extend life.
  • The rich man's heart is sick, it is very sick indeed.
  • A stake, my lord; "hero" is its name.
  • He who despises a just decision, who loves wicked decisions, is an abomination to Utu.
  • A judge who despises justice, cursing with the right hand, and the chasing away of a younger son from the house of his father are abominations to Ninurta.
  • Thanks to the word of his personal god, the fate of the man who speaks just words is favourable, and he is with him throughout the day.
  • My king, the lord perfect in heaven, built a house in the barren marshes.
  • The god of the river ordeal will admire the hearts of those who bear words of truth.
  • May Lumma grant prosperity to him who performs good deeds.
  • The voice of the forest kujanun bird is the glory of the tamarisks.
  • The voice of the duck is the glory of the marshes.

Proverbs from Nibru

Text online
  • I prostrate myself for the sake of Gula, my lady, but in my own eyes I don't have a place to stand.
  • Your role in life is unknown.

Proverbs from Susa

Text online
  • The voice of the frog is the glory of the marsh waters.
  • Let him who has a household go to his household! Let him who has a household and a mother go to his mother!

Proverbs from Urim

Text online
  • Who can compare with justice? It creates life.
  • Whenever wickedness may cause trouble, Utu will not be idle!
  • He who has nothing cannot let go of anything.
  • A plant sweeter than a husband, a plant sweeter than a child: may Ezina-Kusu dwell in your house.
  • That which matches my tears hurts my heart alike.
  • When liars enter by the city gate, in front of them there is a finger pointing at them, behind them there is a finger pointing at them.
  • Utu, the lord who loves justice, extirpates wickedness and prolongs righteousness.
  • When battle approaches, when war arises, the plans of the gods, beloved by the gods, are destroyed.
  • A man without a personal god does not procure much food, does not procure even a little food. Going down to the river, he does not catch any fish. Going down to a field, he does not catch any gazelle. In important matters he is unsuccessful. When running, he does not reach his goal. Yet were his god favourable toward him, anything he might name would be provided for him.
  • One should pay attention to an old man's words. One should submit oneself to his protection.
  • Don't let your mouth accuse him; don't slander him; don't encourage violent retaliation against yourself.
  • A man's intelligence comes from god.
  • A man who does not value his god is thrown out in the desert; his body is not buried and his heir does not provide his ghost with drinking water through a libation pipe.
  • Let just men be born in good health, and let their lives last long.
  • By following craftiness, one learns how to be crafty. By following wisdom, one learns how to be wise.
  • To the trustworthy man belongs a divine voice. The barge on the river and the chariot on the road come to him.

See also

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