A New Sumerian Document

By: S. Langdon

Originally Published in 1914

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During the autumn of 1913, Prof. Stephen Langdon of Jesus College, Oxford, holding the Shillito chair of Assyriology in that institution, spent a month in the University Museum copying a series of tablets selected from the Babylonian collections. These selected tablets were excavated by the fourth expedition to Nippur in the year 1898.

Having taken the copies with him to England to translate them at leisure, he wrote the Director of the Museum in June to the effect that one of the fragments copied (No. 4561) had been found to contain part of a Sumerian version of the Deluge and the Fall of Man. Thereupon a search was made among the collections in the Museum for the missing portions of this tablet, which, by good fortune, were found in a lot that had just been cleaned. The several portions, when joined together, were found to make the tablet nearly complete. Photographs of the obverse and reverse were then sent to Professor Langdon. From these photographs he has now prepared a complete translation which in due time will be published in its proper place by the Museum. In the meantime, the following communication from Professor Langdon and the paper that accompanies it, will be of interest to readers of the JOURNAL.

OXFORD, August 4.

DEAR DR. GORDON:
Your tablet contains a Sumerian version of Paradise, the Flood and Fall of Man. The section on the Fall of Man defines this Fall as the loss of extreme longevity by eating of the cassia or tree of life. The tablet simply says that “he took and ate.” There is no account of a Temptation either by a woman or a serpent. You will note, however, that I never said that a Temptation scene was described, but that I deduced evidence from a grammatical text which leads one to suppose that in Sumerian legend a serpent did induce man to this act. As to a woman we have no right to assume from our tablet that she did or did not figure in this Fall. Our tablet moves rapidly and may omit much of the current legend. I enclose a brief account of the text of the tablet, followed by a literal translation.

Yours sincerely,

S. LANGDON.

The Sumerian Epic of Paradise, the Flood and the Fall of Man

The tablet which contains this remarkable account of the early Sumerian theology concerning the origins of human culture has been almost completely restored at the Museum.

We have here a finely written six-column tablet of about 240 lines, most of which are entirely intact. Written in liturgical style, this composition deserves the rank of an epic, for it handles the most profound problems which concern humanity. It begins by describing the land of primeval bliss, which it locates at Dilmun, an island in the Persian Gulf, and probably connected with the mainland of prehistoric times. In this paradise dwelled mankind, whom Nintud, the creatress, with the help of Enlil, had created. In what way is not said, but the verb employed in one passage suggests a fashioning with the hands of some sort. From other passages we might infer that men were born as the natural offspring of Nintud and the earth-god Enlil, But Semitic tradition as we have it from Babylonian legends and Greek historians represents men as fashioned by the gods, although here too the verb (banu) means both “to beget ” and “to build.”

Fig. 72. — Sumerian Epic of Paradise, the Flood, and the Fall of Man.
Museum Object Number: B4561

In Paradise Enki, the water-god and lord of all wisdom, ruled over mankind with his consort Damkina or Ninella. After a long period Enki became dissatisfied with man because ” he did not come unto him,” which I take to mean that man did not render unto the gods the homage due them. For we know from Semitic sources that the gods created man that they might have someone to render them homage. For this reason Enki sends the flood and frail men dissolved like tallow in deluge. But the king of Dilmun and certain pious ones are sun: maned to the shores of the river by Nintud; they embark on a ship. After the deluge this king is called Tagtug, the divine, a name which is most probably rendered into Semitic by nûhu, ” (God’s wrath) is appeased.” And this Tagtug lives in a garden, is himself a gardener, and the wise Enki reveals unto him wisdom. The Greek historians too preserve this legend in the story of Oannes who rose from the Persian Gulf to teach men wisdom in primeval times. And so Tagtug, as in the Hebrew story of Noah, plants a garden, names the trees and plants and is permitted to eat of all but the cassia tree.

The cassia in Sumerian documents is the herb of healing par excellence, as well as in Semitic and Greek medicine. The legends in regard to it probably told of its being the plant which bestowed absolute immortality. Of this plant Tagtug was not to eat, for thereby he would obtain eternal life. Mankind until this time possessed extreme longevity but not immortality. Tagtug, however, on his own initiative takes and eats. He is cursed by Nintud and becomes a prey to disease and ordinary mortality. Thus in the original Sumerian story Noah, the survivor of the Flood, is the one who eats from the tree of life. No woman is concerned in this disobedience which resulted in our loss of perfect health, peace and countless years. From certain grammatical sources which connect the cassia with the serpent and the curse, I infer, however, that the Sumerians had a tradition regarding the serpent tempter, which induced man to eat from the tree of life. It is possible too that from some other source we may yet obtain evidence that in Sumerian tradition a woman too figured in this infinite sin. Our document, however, mentions no wife of Tagtug.

After the loss of eternal bliss, the state of man evidently became painful and troubled. Therefore the gods sent him eight divine patrons to heal disease, to care for the fields and preside over the various arts.

S. L.

Cite This Article

Langdon, S.. "A New Sumerian Document." The Museum Journal V, no. 3 (September, 1914): 144-141. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/376/


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