Monday, June 9, 2014

The Instructions of Shurrupak

The Instructions of Shuruppak is a 5000 year old document recorded on clay tablets. It's among the very first examples of recorded literature in the history of our species. In other words, it's an incredibly rare and precious gift from people so distant from us in time that we can barely see them from our own era.

As with any precious gift, one must be careful about how one handles it. While The Instructions are a window into a time when Humanity had just learned to write, it's very important to realize just who it is we're seeing through the window.

All images from Wikimedia Commons

In the first place, almost no one knew how to read or write at the time The Instructions was first pressed into soft clay. The "author" (who was almost certainly merely transcribing an oral tradition) was a scribe.  But that word doesn't adequately convey what a "scribe" actually was, and did.

A scribe was highly trained member of an elite class of technicians. They went to school for years to learn cuneiform, and they were responsible for the maintenance and transmission of information within an incredibly complex system of distribution, accumulation and transfer. Without the scribe, the Sumerian economy would have crashed, returning to the local distribution networks and tiny populations of the Ubaid Period.

The Instructions was recorded by scribes, for other scribes, and reflects their concerns and values. At least, it represents their asserted values. But even the assertion of a particular value is instructive to the student of history. Asserted values tell us how people wish to be perceived, and they testify to the existence of behaviors that the asserted values condemn.

The Warka Bull, about 3000 BCE.

I should also note that my own analysis can most charitably be characterized as a wild-assed guess made by someone unqualified to speculate. I don't read Sumerian, and Babylonian scribes of 600 BCE would immediately dismiss me as an intellectual poseur. THEY knew the importance of being able to read Sumerian, 1500 years after it was a dead language. I read English translations of Sumerian documents. For the most part, they're translated by native speakers of English, and Sumerian is very, very different from English. Chomsky would tell you an English speaker can't think like a Sumerian, and that possibility made for a superb science fiction novel.

On the other hand, Occam's Razor saves us some agonizing here. Sumerians were people. It would be strange if we didn't share some common concerns and values. And thanks to archeology we actually know a great deal about how ancient Sumerian society worked, which is helpful in understanding its literature.

Sumerian life ways were a bold experiment in human behavior. They took agricultural practices that originated in the Levant and applied them to the delta region of the Tigris-Euphrates delta. Instead of praying for rain, they irrigated. The experiment paid off like the Powerball; much of the time Sumerian settlements were swimming in grain.

And for the very first time in human history, we see the operation of an apparently immutable law:

Surplus value will always be diverted to a society's elites, employing a narrative ideology. That value will then be used to support and extend that elite's privileges.

The grinding, labor intensive agriculture that made the grain surplus possible was not a means to an end. The labor was itself the purpose of human existence. Labor had formerly been the activity of the Gods, but bored and exhausted by the drudgery, they demanded relief from their ruler, Enlil. This was the motivation behind the creation of humanity; to do the work that would allow the deities to reside effortlessly in "the place of their heart's delight".

The Ziggurat of Ur

Naturally, the place where the Gods' hearts were delighted was in their temple, in their favorite city, surrounded by specialists in the creation of impressive, crowd-pleasing ritual and ceremony. These specialists, had to be supported by the poor bastards out in the fields.  That's a modern perspective, of course. A priest of the city's temple would point out how the priests gave each worker a bowl of grain of their very own, every day.

Between the elites controlling the surplus and the masses providing the surplus, there was a sliver we might think of as "middle-class". These were specialists in non-agricultural occupations like smithing, or the production of prestige goods. Or, they were scribes.

Keeping all of that in mind , here is what I think we can conclude from The Instructions of Shurrupak.

Middle class Sumerians were very much chasing the American dream. The verses tell us the Sumerian scribes possessed private property, including both slaves and agricultural land. A number of verses of The Instructions are devoted to "expanding property", and "multiplying your goods". The specific techniques for this are instructive. The reader is cautioned to buy slaves rather than hiring labor, to buy foreign rather than local slaves, and to marry a woman from a prosperous family rather than an attractive one. Hard work and diligent attention are recommended, and the focus seems to be on creating a lasting family legacy rather than individual enrichment.

At the same time, The Instructions counsel a great deal of social deference. The reader is advised to "not speak improperly", to "not boast in beer halls" and to "move along at the side of the mighty". He is told to "avoid quarrels", and "speak modestly". There seems to me to be clear evidence of a class structure in these verses, even if we ignore other evidence from material culture.

Sumerian society is less patriarchal than we might expect from the earliest historical civilization.  Women with their own property are claimed to "ruin a home". Sumerian women could own their own property, under some circumstances. I conclude this made them less deferential to men, and that scribes were predictably turned off by this prospect. Some of the more patriarchal themes of The Instructions are carefully paired with strong themes of respect for women, especially older women. 

The Instructions also enjoins the reader to avoid sex with a married woman, which implies some degree of female sexual autonomy. Another proverb states that "A weak wife is always seized by fate", which seems to me to be a rape reference, especially in conjunction with another verse urging the reader not to be a rapist. The consequence of rape, as with adultery, seems to be social disapproval rather than the criminal penalties which we see described in the injunctions against theft.

The goddess Inanna and her lover the shepherd Dimuzzi. She sent him to Hell.

The rape references are part of an over-all theme of pervasive physical insecurity, at least by our standards. Shurrupak flatly tells us not to travel East. I suppose that might be a reference to the Elamites, an ancient enemy of Mesopotamia, but it seems more likely to be a reference to the bandits that always live on the edge of civilization. There are warnings against travel by night, warnings against beating one's social inferiors (they might destroy your property) and warnings against abducting your wife, rather than marrying legitimately. Two particular sins the reader is warned against are burglary, and the theft of meat. Unlike the warnings against rape and adultery, these acts apparently carry formal criminal penalties.

Life in ancient Mesopotamia was apparently a precarious affair. Economic surpluses provided the basis for a thriving economy in most years, but the goods and possessions accumulated by the successful resident of the city were vulnerable to theft and perhaps the envy of those with higher social status. Clearly there was an advantage to be derived from allying oneself with "the mighty". Beatings of one's social inferiors were considered to be a sign of poor judgement, but were apparently not criminal. Finally, rape and robbery were common enough to be feared, especially at night or in rural areas. It seems worth noting here that the fact that city-dwelling scribes feared rural crime doesn't tell us how much crime there was.

If I haven't misread the entire intent of the text, The Instructions of Shuruppak draws a very familiar sketch for us. We see middle-class citizens much like ourselves, trying to provide economic security and a bit of luxury, for themselves and their families. We see a hustling petit-bourgeoisie trying to ingratiate itself to its "betters", crapping on its "inferiors", and desperately concerned with keeping up a respectable image for the neighbors.

At least, that's my translation-reading, center-left, late 20th Century perspective on it. And if I'm right, it tells us something critically important about "human nature", at least as it manifests in urban economies with occupational specialization.