Law and Love, A Hymn, A Prayer, and a Word to the Wise

A "Fulbright" in Turkey

By: Samuel Noah Kramer

Originally Published in 1952

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In order to illustrate concretely the character of the contents of some of the material copied during the Fulbright year in Turkey, I have selected five of the better preserved and more important documents for a detailed description; these are: The Ur-Nammu Law-Code, The Shu-Sin Love Poem, Hymn to the Air-God Enlil, Hymnal-Prayer to the Storm-God Ninurta, and A “Book” of Proverbs.

The Ur-Nammu Law-Code. Were it not for Kraus’s letter, I probably would have missed the tablet altogether. I had met F. R. Kraus a number of years ago in the course of my earlier Sumerological researches in the Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient, where he was curator for many years. Recently he had gone to Austria as professor of oriental studies in the University of Vienna. Hearing that I was once again in Istanbul, this time as Fulbright research scholar, he wrote me a letter reminiscing of olden days. But one paragraph “talked shop.” Some years ago, in the course of his duties as curator in the Istanbul museum, he wrote, he had come upon two fragments of a tablet inscribed with Sumerian laws, had made a “join” of the two pieces, and had catalogued the resulting tablet as number 3191 of the Nippur collection of the museum. I might be interested in its contents, he added, and perhaps want to copy it.

Drawing of many pieces of tablet fragments, pieced together, inscriptions copied.
Figure 11. A new hymn to Inanna, the goddess of love and war, copied by Muazzez Çig, one of the curators of the Tablet Archives of the Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient.

Since Sumerian law tablets are extremely rare, I had number 3191 brought to my working table at once. There it lay, a sun-baked tablet, light brown in color, twenty centimeters by ten in size. More than half of the writing was destroyed, and what was preserved, at first, seemed hopelessly unintelligible. But after several clays of concentrated study, its contents began to clarify and take shape, and I realized with no little excitement that what I held in my hand was a copy of the oldest law-code as yet known to man (Fig. 13). It was promulgated by Ur-Nammu, the Sumerian king who founded what is commonly known in the history books as the Third Dynasty of Ur. According to the very lowest chronological estimates, Ur-Nammu reigned about 2050 B.C., some three hundred years before the now well-known and far-famed Semitic law-giver, Hammurabi.

Until only five years ago, the Hammurabi code, written in the cuneiform script and in the Semitic language known as Babylonian, was by all odds the most ancient brought to light. Sandwiched in between a boastful prologue and a curse-laden epilogue are close to three hundred laws which run the gamut of man’s possible deeds and misdeeds. The diorite stele on which the code is inscribed now stands solemn and impressive in the Louvre for all to see and admire. From the point of view of fullness of legal detail and state of preservation, it is still by all odds the most impressive ancient law document as yet uncovered-but not from the point of view of age and antiquity. For in the year 1947, there came to light a law code promulgated by a king named Lipit-Ishtar who preceded Hammurabi by more than one hundred and fifty years.

The Lipit-Ishtar code, as it is now generally named, is not inscribed on a stele but on a sun-baked clay tablet. It is written in the cuneiform script, but in the non-Semitic Sumerian language. The tablet was excavated some fifty years ago, but for various reasons had remained unidentified and unpublished all these years. As reconstructed and translated with my help by Francis Steele, assistant curator in the University Museum, it is seen to have contained a prologue, epilogue, and an unknown number of laws of which thirty-seven are preserved wholly or in part.

Three columns on inscriptions from a tablet fragment.
Figure 12. A hymn to Lipit-Ishtar, who reigned over Sumer in the nineteenth century B.C.; a number of duplicates of this hymn are now extant. This tablet was written by a practicing schoolboy who, after completing the hymn, drew a double line and continued with an exercise in word writing (not copied except for the first four lines). The tablet was copied by Hatice Kizilyay, one of the curators of the Tablet Archives of the Museum of the Ancient Orient.

But Lipit-Ishtar’s claim to fame as the world’s first law-giver was short-lived. For the very next year, Taha Baqir, the curator of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, who was digging in an obscure mound called Harmal, announced the discovery of two tablets inscribed with an older law-code, written, like the Hammurabi code, in the Semitic Babylonian language. The documents were studied and copied that very year by the well-known Yale cuneiformist, Albrecht Goetze. In the brief prologue which precedes the laws-there is no epilogue-a king is mentioned by the name of Bilalama who lived some seventy years before Lipit-Ishtar. It is this Semitic Bilalama code, therefore, which seemed to be entitled to priority honors until this year, when as a result of F. R. Kraus’s communication, the Istanbul tablet, inscribed with Ur-Nammu’s Sumerian law-code, came to light. For Ur-Nammu, a far more important ruler than Bilalama, preceded the latter by at least one hundred years.

The Istanbul tablet was divided by the ancient scribe into eight columns, four on the obverse and four on the reverse. Each of the columns contained about forty-five small ruled spaces; less than half of these are now legible. The obverse contains a long prologue which is only partially intelligible because of the numerous breaks in the text. Briefly put, it runs as follows:

After the world had been created, and after the fate of the land Sumer and of the city Ur-the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees-had been decided, An and Enlil, the two leading deities of the Sumerian pantheon, appointed the moon-god Nanna as the king of Ur. Then one day, Ur-Nammu was selected by the god to rule over Sumer and Ur as his earthly representative (Fig. 14). The new king’s first acts had to do with the political and military safety of Ur and Sumer. In particular he found it necessary to do battle with the bordering city-state of Lagash which was expanding at Ur’s expense. He defeated and put to death its ruler, Namhani, and then “with the power of Nanna, the king of the city” he reestablished Ur’s former boundaries.

Drawing of a tablet fragment with inscriptions.
Figure 13. The Ur-Nammu Law-Code, a copy of the obverse containing the prologue to the code. For additional illustrations, cf. forthcoming January number of the Scientific American.
Image Number: 50990

Now came the time to turn to internal affairs and to institute social and moral reforms. He removed the “chiselers” and the grafters, or as the code itself describes them, the “grabbers” of the citizens’ oxen, sheep, and donkeys. He then established and regulated honest and unchangeable weights and measures. He saw to it that “the orphan did not fall a prey to the wealthy,” “the widow did not fall a prey to the powerful,” “the man of one shekel did not fall a prey to the man of one mina (sixty shekels).” And, though the relevant passage is destroyed on the tablet, it was no doubt to insure justice in the land and to promote the welfare of its citizens that he promulgated the laws which followed.

The laws themselves probably began on the reverse of the tablet, and are so badly damaged that only the contents of five of them can be restored with some degree of certainty. One of them seems to involve a trial by the water ordeal; another seems to treat of the return of a slave to his master. But it is the other three laws, fragmentary and difficult as their contents are, which are of very special importance for the history of man’s social and spiritual growth. For they show that even before 2000 B.C., the law of “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth”-still prevalent to a large extent in the Biblical laws of a much later day-had already given way to the far more humane approach in which a money fine was substituted as a punishment. Because of their historical significance these three laws are here quoted in the original Sumerian, transcribed into our alphabet, together with their literal translation:

tukum-bi If
[lu-lu-ra fa man to a man
gish- . . . -ta] with a . . . -instrument]
. . . -a-ni his . . .
gir in kud the foot has cut off,
10-gin-ku-babbar 10 silver shekels
i-la-e he shall pay.
tukum-bi If
lu-lu-ra a man to a man
gish-tukul-ta with a weapon
gir-pad-du his bones
al-mu-ra-ni of . . .
in-zi-ir severed,
1-ma-na-ku-babbar 1 silver mina
i-la-e he shall pay.
tukum-bi If
lu-lu-ra a man to man
geshpu-ta with a geshpu-instrument
ka- . . . in-kud the nose (?) has cut off,
2/3-ma-na-ku-babbar 2/3 of a silver mina
i-la-e he shall pay.

How long will Ur-Nammu retain his crown as the world’s first law-giver? Not for long, I fear. There are indications that there were law-givers in Sumer long before Ur-Nammu was born. Sooner or later a lucky “digger” will come up with a copy of a law-code preceding that of Ur-Nammu by a century or more.

Fragment of a stela showing a seated figure of a god reciving a king.
Figure 14. Ur- Nammu (standing), the king whose law-code is the oldest as yet known to man. Part of a relief excavated at Ur by a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University Museum, and now on display in the latter institution.
Museum Object Number: B16676.14

The Shu-Sin Love Poem. When I first laid eyes on the little tablet with the Museum number 2461, its most attractive feature was its state of preservation; its contents, I assumed, were probably more or less “routine.” But as I began to study the inscription, I was intrigued by its rather unusual character; it was reminiscent, ever so faintly to be sure, of King Solomon’s “Song of Songs.” I soon realized that I was reading a poem divided into a number of stanzas, which celebrated beauty and love, a joyous bride and a king named Shu-Sin who ruled over the land of Sumer close to four thousand years ago. As I read it again and yet again, there was no mistaking its contents; what I held in my hand was one of the oldest love songs written down by the hand of man. Also it is one of the rarest of Sumerian literary types; in the entire range of Sumerian literature, there is, as far as I know, only one other poem of a somewhat similar character.

To be sure, it soon became clear, this was not a secular poem, not a song of love between just “a man and a maid.” It involved a king and his selected bride, and was no doubt intended to be recited in the course of the most hallowed of ancient rites, the rite of the “sacred marriage.” Once a year, according to Sumerian belief, it was the sacred duty of the ruler to marry a priestess and votary of Inanna, the goddess of love and procreation, in order to insure fertility to the soil and fecundity to the womb. The time-honored ceremony was celebrated on New Year’s day and was preceded by feasts and banquets accompanied by music, song, and dance. The poem inscribed on the little Istanbul clay tablet was in all probability recited by the chosen bride of King Shu-Sin in the course of one of these New Year celebrations.

The following literal translation of this ancient love song (the last three lines are obscure and are not included here) was prepared to the best of my ability, after careful study. The reader is asked to bear in mind, however, that the translation of Sumerian texts is still a difficult and complex process, and that the meaning of some of the words and phrases is still uncertain (Fig. 15).

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bed-chamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bed-chamber.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bed-chamber, honey-filled
Let us enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.

Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion; sleep in our house until dawn.

You, because you love me,
Give me, pray, of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My Shu-Sin who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
Give me, pray, of your caresses.

Hand written copy of lines of inscriptions of a tablet.
Figure 15. The Shu-Sin love poem; copy by Muazzez Çig.
Image Number: 50994

Hymn to the Air-God Enlil. The tablet numbered Ni. 4150 is the lower part of a four-column tablet inscribed with one of the rather rare hymns to Enlil, the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon (Fig. 16). The Istanbul piece contains only about half of the hymn, but the text can be almost completely restored with the help of two other pieces. One is a fragment which was published almost forty years ago by Stephen Langdon, and which now turns out to be the upper part of the very same tablet as Ni. 4150; the other is a piece found only recently by the Joint Expedition to Nippur, of which Donald McCown, director of the excavations, was kind enough to mail me a photograph. The composition consists of about 170 lines which celebrate Enlil as a most powerful and benevolent deity: he is a god whose word and decision are unalterable; the gods of heaven and earth prostrate themselves before him in all humility; he detests the violent and the unjust and sees to it that they do not go unpunished; his sanctuary, the Ekur, is the home of awesome and profound rites and ceremonies; he is free of all controls and his features remain invisible even to the other gods; his exalted word brings down abundance from heaven and makes the earth fruitful; his wife and adviser is Ninlil, the gracious and well formed, the queen of the universe. What Enlil means to man and civilization is stated in the following simple and not unmoving lines (only a few of the phrases are doubtful or restored by me):

Without Enlil, the great mountain,
No cities would be built, no settlements founded,
No stalls would be built, their sheepfolds would not be founded,
No king would be raised, no high-priest born,
No mahhu-priest, no high-priestess would be chosen by sheep-(omen),
The workers would have neither governor nor supervisor,
The river-, its flood-waters would not overflow, . . . ,
The fish of the sea would not lay eggs in the canebrake,
The birds of heaven would not set up nests in the broad earth,
In heaven, the drifting clouds would not yield their moisture,
Plants and herbs, the glory of the plain, would not grow,
In field and meadow the rich grain would not flower,
The trees planted in the mountain-forests would yield no fruit.

The Hymnal Prayer to the Storm-God Ninurta. Ni. 9695 is a well-preserved tablet inscribed with a composition which combines a hymn and a prayer (Fig. 17). The text consists primarily of a hymn addressed to the storm-god Ninurta, interspersed with prayers for Lipit-Ishtar, the very same ruler who promulgated the Sumerian law-code mentioned previously (p. 28). The more intelligible parts of the text may be sketched briefly as follows: Ninurta is glorified as the deity whom the goddess Nintu had fashioned with particular care, his very special endowments being bravery and awe-inspiring heroism. After birth she brings Ninurta, “the avenger of his father,” to the Ekur, Enlil’s far-famed sanctuary in Nippur. Here, upon her request, Enlil decrees for him his great destiny, the power to smite his enemies with the help of the winds and storms. This passage ends with a two-line prayer for the king Lipit-Ishtar in which Ninurta is petitioned to force all the king’s enemies to bow clown before him. The text then continues with a more extensive prayer: may Ninurta’s wife, “the lady of Nippur,” speak up daily to her husband in Lipit-Ishtar’s behalf; may Ninurta stand by him in the place of battle; may he grant him, the king who had brought justice and happiness to Sumer and Akkad, victory over his enemies. The composition closes with a line in which the ancient scribe himself classifies it as belonging to the hymnal genre known as adab of Ninurta, a scribal note which indicates the highly sophisticated state of hymnography in those pre-Biblical clays.

Drawing of tablet fragments with hand copied inscriptions.
Figure 16. Hymn to the air-god Enlil; copy by Hatice Kizilyay.
Image Number: 50991

A Word to the Wise: The “Book” of Proverbs. The most important single group of tablets and fragments copied this year consists of “wisdom” compositions, among which are proverb collections or “books” of various types. Years ago, in the course of my earlier research in Istanbul, I had already noted that this literary genre was well represented among its unpublished pieces. Needless to say I well realized their importance and would gladly have copied them then and there, especially since our museum had a large number of “proverb” pieces to supplement them. But my time that year, unfortunately, was rather limited, and I deemed it wiser to devote all of it to the myths and epic tales, and be content with the hope that an opportunity to copy them would arise some future day. It came this year when I returned as Fulbright Scholar to Turkey, and the “proverb” tablets and fragments were naturally the very first I tackled. My reward came almost immediately; for I soon came upon two large clay tablets inscribed with what is certainly one of the oldest collections of proverbs and maxims in man’s recorded history. Both tablets elate from about 1700 B.C., and may be copies of works composed considerably earlier. They are therefore a good millennium older than the Biblical “Book of Proverbs.”

The tablets (Figs. 18, 19) measure seventeen centimeters by twenty-two each, are divided into eight columns, four to a side, and contain practically identical texts. Originally this text consisted of some one hundred and eighty proverbs. But at present each of the two tablets is only about half preserved. Fortunately they are not broken in exactly the same places, and it is therefore possible to recover a good deal more than half their contents. Moreover, the restored text resulting from the combination of the preserved parts of these two tablets made possible a more intelligent search for additional duplicates among the still unidentifiable small Sumerian literary fragments in the Istanbul museum. As a result twelve such duplicates, each inscribed with one or more proverbs, were uncovered. Finally, in searching through the photographs of the Sumerian proverb tablets in the University Museum which I had brought along from Philadelphia for just such a contingency, eleven more small duplicates came to light. Combining the contents of all these twenty odd tablets and fragments, we now have the practically complete text of fifty-five of the one hundred and eighty proverbs which made up this “book,” while the text of another eighty-one can be restored in large part.

One of the more interesting features of this newly uncovered proverb compilation is its arrangement; the sayings are not strung together haphazardly as for instance most of those in the Biblical “Book of Proverbs” seem to be. The Sumerian teachers and men of letters tended to have a highly systematic approach to all their literary and scholarly efforts. In this case they divided the sayings in accordance with the initial word. Thus except for a few as yet inexplicable deviations, the first forty-five proverbs begin with the sign which usually stands for the Sumerian word nig “thing,” the second group of about fifteen proverbs begins with urn “city,” while those of another large group begin with the word shag “heart.”

Drawing of tablet fragments with hand copied inscriptions.
Figure 17. A hymnal prayer to the storm-god Ninurta, copied by Hatice Kizilyay.

But copying the tablets and fragments and piecing together their contents proved to be far simpler than ascertaining their meaning. The translation of Sumerian proverbs is difficult and unrewarding, particularly because they lack a guiding and controlling context and are extremely brief and cryptic in their wording. It seemed therefore advisable, in case of the proverbs in this newly uncovered collection, to enlist the help of other cuneiformists in a cooperative effort to get at their meaning. For it was reasonable to suppose that if a number of scholars worked on them simultaneously, one might hit the mark where another misses. Moreover, if two or more scholars working independently should produce identical translations, their correctness would tend to be reasonably assured. In any case, it seemed to be an experiment well worth trying. I therefore prepared to the best of my ability transliterations of forty-eight of the best preserved proverbs and mailed them, together with identically worded explanatory letters, to twenty cuneiformists who seemed likely to be interested.

Eight scholars responded: Adam Falkenstein of Heidelberg, C. J. Gadd of the British Museum, Thorkild Jacobsen of Chicago, Raymond Jestin of Paris, F. R. Kraus of Vienna, Maurice Lambert of Paris, P. van der Meer of Amsterdam, and Maurus Witzel of the Pontifical Biblical Institute at Rome. Only one of the eight translated all the proverbs; each of the others translated respectively 45, 42, 40, 38, 33, 25, and 22. Ten of the proverbs were translated by all eight participants; 14 were translated by seven of them; 10 by six; 7 by five; 2 by four; 2 by three; 2 by two; 1 by only one. There was considerable disagreement about practically all the proverbs, and no agreement at all in case of some. Nevertheless it is my feeling that the experiment was by no means a total failure, and that in the long run similar efforts will lead to a better understanding of the Sumerian proverb material.

Sumerian proverbs, like proverbs the world over, are brief, pithy sayings which depend for their effect primarily on extreme terseness of expression and the unexpected turn of phrase; often it is what they evoke and connote, rather than what they actually state, which is important. The great importance of proverbs lies in the fact that, more than any other literary genre, they provide us with a psychological insight into the character and personality of the ancients, since they reveal to some extent the fundamental drives and attitudes which governed their day-to-day living. Thus, to take only some of the more intelligible sayings in our new Sumerian proverb “book,” there were the ineffective individuals who found themselves frustrated either because they were trying to do what had already been done, or because they were pursuing the wrong tactics. To the former our Sumerian sages offered this advice:

Drawing of tablet fragments with inscriptions hand copied.
Figure 18. The last two columns of the proverb “book.” Following the double line which the ancient scribe drew to show that the “book” was finished, he signed his name thus: “(This is) the hand (copy) of Ninurta-mushtal. the junior scribe.”

Do not cut off the neck of that which has already had its neck cut off.

And to the latter they counseled:

Say not to Ningishzida (a god who is himself dead and lives in the underworld) “Let me live.”

There were of course the greedy “characters” who preferred their neighbors’ goods. These were warned in a saying which is probably to be translated as follows:

(Who says): Let my substance remain unused, I will consume your substance, (that man) will be rarely invited to the house of his friend.

In any case no man should rely over-much on his worldly possessions since:

Possessions are birds who know no permanent home.

Man’s penchant for “griping” at his losses and concealing his profits is expressed in these words:

You say nothing of what you have found,
You speak only of what you have lost.

Sumer, of course, had its perennial poor with their eternal troubles, and these are rather nicely summed up in these contrasting lines:

The poor man is better dead than alive:
If he has bread, he has no salt,
If he has salt, he has no bread;
If he has a house, he has no stall,
If he has a stall, he has no house.7

We are all only too well acquainted with what happens to a city government when its citizens are not vigilant. Our Sumerians seemed to have had very similar experiences, at least so we may gather from these two sayings:

A city which permits the hunting clogs to lie about,
The fox is (its) major domo.

Drawing of tablet fragments with inscriptions hand copied.
Figure 19. Several duplicates of the proverb “book”; it was small fragments like these which helped fill in many of the gaps in the eight-column tablets.


A city without vigilance, its comptroller turns merchant.

The young man is advised to marry and beget unhesitatingly,

Take a wife according to your choice,
Have a child according to your heart’s desire.

But he better be very careful in his choice of a wife, for even in those clays the discontented wife just did not know what was wrong with her and made the doctor her refuge. At least so we may perhaps surmise from the saying:

A restless woman in the house adds ache to pain.

The offspring too might turn out not too well, that is, it might be one of whom it is said:

The perverse child, may his mother not give birth to him,
May his god not fashion him.

Perhaps it is no wonder then that the Sumerians were not immune to the fatalistic attitude, as can be seen from the saying:

Destruction is of the gods.

7 The proverb does not end here; it continues in this vein for several more lines, but the text is destroyed at this point.

Cite This Article

Kramer, Samuel Noah. "Law and Love, A Hymn, A Prayer, and a Word to the Wise." Museum Bulletin XVII, no. 2 (December, 1952): 23-42. Accessed April 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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