old akkadian

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Old Akkadian Fossiliferous Limestone Cylinder Seal with Water-God Enki, Akkadian II, 2294-2270 BC

A fossiliferous limestone cylinder seal with a warlike god in slash-skirt, armed with a barrow in the left hand and a mace in his right hand; on the right side is the god Enki (Ea) with four streams of water flowing from the shoulders, left foot resting on a pedestal signifying mountains, four fish in the streams, recumbent cow in profile at the god’s feet; crescent between the gods; possibly a contemporary copy with the picture detail of the famous Old Akkadian seal of the scribe Adda; engraved with a square panel with four lines of cuneiform text: 1. KIŠIB X 2. UR-li-bé-lí 3. SAG-ͩna NANNA (ŠEŠ-KI) 4. DUMU LUGAL-NI-ZU.

The fossils in the red limestone are Foraminifera, probably Triticites ventricosus, sometimes called ‘rice fossils.’ They were particularly abundant in the Carboniferous Period, 359-299 million years ago.

“Ea Loves Seduction-Magic” (MAD V 8)

Note: This is the oldest surviving love-incantation in the world.  Because of its age (at least 4200 years old), many of the terms and idioms are obscure, so I have more footnotes than usual.  Ea/Enki is the god of magic; Ishtar/Inanna is the goddess of sexuality and love.  In general, “she/you” is the female target of the spell, and “he/I” is either the magician (casting the spell) or the client (securing the woman’s affection); the descriptors of “the magician/the client” are my own, and are tentative.


Ea Loves Seduction-Magic

[The magician]

Seduction-magic, the child of Ishtar,
dwells between her thighs.
They swell up with fragrant nectar.

Oh lovely maidens, you are both blossoming;
you came down to the garden.
To the garden you came,
and you produced the fragrant nectar.[1]

[The client]

I seize your nectar-filled mouth;
I seize your openings of every color;
I seize your wet genitals.[2]
I mount on the “garden of Sîn”;
I “cut down the poplar-tree for her day.”[3]
Fence me in amidst the boxwood trees,
like a shepherd fences in a flock,
a goat her kid, an ewe her lamb,
a jenny her foal.[4]

[The magician]

Adorned are his hands,
harpweed oil on his lips,[5]
a cup of oil in his hands,
a cup of cedar on his shoulders.

The seduction-magics have whispered to her,
and they have driven her crazy.[6]

I hereby seize your mouth of lovemaking.
By the goddesses Ishtar and Ishara,
I adjure you:
Until your neck and his neck are pressed together,
you shall have no relief!


[1] In my view, the “two beautiful maidens” are metaphors for the woman’s labia, which enlarge and grow wet as she becomes aroused.  (This is not a view shared by other scholars, but their interpretations, which tend to take this as a literal story about two young women, have little relevance to the rest of the love-charm.)  “Fragrant nectar” is a translation of “saliva of the incense-tree,” which I view as a poetic metaphor for the fluids of female arousal, as they have a consistency like saliva and a notable scent.

[2] “Seize” is the same verb used when a man “takes” a woman in marriage, but here it refers to acquiring magical control over her body parts.  All three of these lines have difficulties or obscurities, so my translation is tentative.  Nonetheless, I believe this to continue the quasi-metaphorical description of a woman’s arousal.  Her “mouth of saliva/sap” is her aroused vulva; her “multi-colored eyes” refer to her various orifices (“eye” can mean “spring, portal”).  The third line most literally translates to “genitals of urine,” which scholars usually interpret as an abruptly derogatory description of her.  But since the fluid of female ejaculation is often mistaken as urine, even in recent years, this interpretation seems more likely.  Moreover, the combination of these interpretations makes for a much more natural sequence.  Instead of giving two odd descriptions of the woman’s face and one insult to her genitals, the client is staking his claim on the progressive stages of sexual intercourse: arousal, penetration, and ejaculation.

[3] These two metaphors are obscure.  In the light of the “Cow of Sîn” story (for which, to be fair, our copy is over a thousand years later), I wonder whether “mounting the garden of Sîn” is an allusion to copulating like animals.  “Poplar-tree” (ṣarbatum) could be a pun on *ṣarpātu, “red dye”; if so, “cutting down the poplar-tree for her day” could mean that he is deflowering her, i.e. stopping her from having a blood-stained marriage bed.  But this is pure speculation.

[4] “Fence in” is otherwise unattested in Akkadian as a verb, but it has parallels in other languages, and it’s connected to the Akkadian word for “wall.”  Thus, all four lines talk about the action of enclosing something securely, just as the client hopes that the woman’s vagina will enclose him.  Boxwood was a luxury wood that did not grow natively in Mesopotamia and had to be imported; thus, the allusion to it may add exoticism to the text, or it may compare the woman’s vagina to a precious container.

[5] “Harpweed” is my translation of tibuttum, a word that could mean a musical instrument or an unknown kind of herb.  We actually have an Akkadian medical text that talks about mixing tibittum-plant with grease to make a soothing salve to put on the anus, so it makes sense to me that “oil and tibittum” would describe some sort of known lubricant or soothing ointment.

[6] Literally, “they have made her into a religious ecstatic.”  “Drive her crazy” is the equivalent modern idiom.

youngmarx  asked:

Thanks for your answers to my questions recently! They're much appreciated. I was just wondering how scholars were able to derive phonetic value from cuneiform scribes when they first decoded Akkadian and Sumerian? I've never quite understood that. Hopefully you can shed some light on the topic. Cheers!

Silim, and certainly!

The short answer is, Cuneiform languages were deciphered backwards in time. If you’ve heard of the Rosetta Stone, you know that Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered using that document (and other works) which included both the hieroglyphics and other languages (in that case, Greek). The decipherment of Cuneiform languages used basically the same process.

The first cuneiform language decoded was Old Persian, which was written with a late variety of cuneiform that was primarily phonetic and was pretty easily decipherable using documents of the Rosetta Stone type. It was also easy to verify as it’s a direct ancestor language to modern Persian.

From there, several different people, notably Henry Rawlinson and Edward Hincks, worked independently to use another set of “rosetta stones”, most famously the Behistun Inscription, to decipher Akkadian. Exactly how they did so is actually not fully understood (this happened in the 1850s, so not all their documents have been preserved) but an independent jury found that the decipherments seemed legitimate and matched with one another, so Akkadian was declared deciphered in 1857. For a description of this process, I recommend Daniels’ The World’s Writing Systems (1996).

And from there, Sumerian was actually the easiest jump — we have a large number of “schoolbook” tablets intended to teach Akkadian speakers how to write and speak Sumerian, since the governments of Assyria & Babylonia used Sumerian for documentation etc. long after it was commonly spoken. These illustrated both how to write and say a large number of Sumerian words, so decipherment was easy.

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Exceedingly Rare Sumerian Green Chalcedony Cylinder Seal of King Kurigalzu II, Kassite, 14th Century BC

A chrome chalcedony cylinder seal with seated profile figure and Sumerian cuneiform inscription in eight columns; depicting a seated bearded divine figure facing left, holding a trident, three right-facing locusts above; the eight lines of scholarly Sumerian cuneiform text with a prayer to Ninurta for the prosperity of Kurigalzu’s reign. The seal fitted with an antique gold pin passed through the original longitudinal perforation and a loop to enable it to be worn as a pendant. Translation (by Professor Lambert) for each column:

(1) dkur-da-ru gada gìr / ‘Ninurta, powerful lord’
(2) saĝ kal šà-aš-DU / 'special chief, foremost’
(3) ururu mah an-ta-ğál / 'the lofty city (?) being in heaven’
(4) ur-saĝ dili-ni rib-ba / 'champion on his own standing out’
(5) [diğir] ní-su-ši ri-a / 'the god moving with a halo of terror’
(6) ku-ri-gal-zu / ’(on) Kurigalzu’
(7) nun nì tuku-tuku-zu / 'the prince who reveres you’
(8) bala šà dùg-ga ğar-bi / 'place a reign of sweet heart’.

The extremely rare green variety of chalcedony was only known to the ancients and the Romans, until circa 3rd century AD, when it disappears from history. It is only known from small worked pieces such as beads and intaglios. The source has been recently discovered as being from northern Turkey (Anatolia). The color derives from the presence of chromium.

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Two Babylonian Lullabies (BM 122691 and OECT 11 002)

This first lullaby is a loose translation, in order to fit a modern musical meter.  It can be sung to “Nettleton” (Come Thou Fount) or Joyful, Joyful (Ode to Joy) — I recommend singing lines 1-8, then repeating 1-6 and finishing with 9-10.  A closer translation of the same text is at the end, followed by a different, longer incantation to help a crying baby sleep.


Little one, who dwelled in darkness,
       now you’ve come and seen the sun.
Why the crying?  Why the worries?
       What has made your peace undone?

You have roused the household spirits;
       you have scared the guardian-gods.
“Who has roused me?  Who has scared me?”
       “Little baby woke you up!”

May you settle into slumber,
       sweet as plum-wine, deep as love.

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Fantastic compilation of major dead languages including Old Japanese, Proto-Indo European, Mayan, Sabbatic, Proto-Celtic, Aramaic, Akkadian, Old Chinese, Old Greek (not Ancient Greek), Latin, Gothic and more. 

dyingtoknow  asked:

Recommended translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh? The Proust one was a treat. Are there any other literary translations you love?

There are a few things that make the Epic of Gilgamesh different from other objects of translation. The first is that archaeology has provided it to us in nearly a dozen, occasionally irreconcilable, versions.

The situation is something like this: there was an historical king named Gilgamesh/Bilgameš. He ruled a city called Uruk, now in Iraq, around 4,600 years ago. This man either commissioned a personal myth of his kingship or adopted a previously existing myth as his own. This in turn becomes the source for all extant versions of the epic. The story was powerful enough to have been written down in at least three successive languages.

The earliest of these was Sumerian. This was probably the first language to have been written down and may have been the language for which writing itself was invented. It has no clear ancestry and may be a relic of the linguistic era before our own. Today, nearly every language on Earth can be traced to fourteen or fifteen mother tongues. This is how you move from English, to Anglo-Saxon, to Germanic, to Proto-Germanic, until you’re all the way back at the last common ancestor of Sanskrit and the European languages. This is the direct ancestor of around 585 languages spoken in Europe and Asia. This language, Proto-Indo-European, was last spoken around five thousand years ago. And there you hit the barrier separating what we think of as civilization from what came before: the neolithic era. I.e., whatever the painters of those French caves were speaking, we can be reasonably sure that it bore no relation to any modern European tongue. (The language of the neolithic cave painters and that of the Proto-Indo-Europeans are separated by something like 20,000 years and 2,000 miles.) At any rate, the idea is that Sumerian may have been a language out of this neolithic era and this is why it cannot be related to any modern tongue. Sumerian might even have been a conglomeration of all the neolithic languages spoken in Mesopotamia and so served as the language in which all the various neolithic tribes could converse. (If this is the case Sumerian becomes exceptionally important in the history of civilization because it represents the first, deliberate attempt by humans to overcome linguistic, and presumably cultural, barriers for the sake of common purpose.) Anyway, because of its importance to the first complex Mesopotamian societies Sumerian becomes the first language to be written down there. (Writing seems to have been invented as a way of keeping books, and only later as a means of recording speech, tho if you ask me a writing system that impresses numbers onto durable media is already preserving spoken language.) The epic seems not to have been as developed in Sumerian as it would later become.

Then the people who spoke Sumerian begin to speak another language unrelated to it: Akkadian. However, Sumerian still has a great deal of prestige attached to it and scribes continue to learn it as a written language for hundreds of years after it ceases to be their first language of speech. (In this, Sumerian has a lot in common with Latin, which persisted as a common written language in Europe for something like fourteen hundred years after its last native speaker had died.) Akkadian is eventually written down, in two phases: The earlier of these tends to be called Old Akkadian and the later, some variety of Babylonian (Old, Middle, Late, etc.) The epic exists fragmentarily in all of these varieties but the most complete version is in a type of Akkadian reserved for literary uses. You can think of this as a deliberately archaic dialect that is kept around because of the prestige its antiquity confers. This is the language in which the real poetry, and a good deal of the immortal human resonance, get added to the story.

A professional exorcist named Sin-leqi-unninni, writing in Akkadian about 3,200 years ago, is the nearest thing to the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He acts something like a funnel. He collects and edits all previous versions of the story, renders them into poetry and creates a standard text. Nearly all the fragments of the epic created after Sin-leqi-unninni appear to be copies or close derivatives of his earlier work. This is important because the best preserved copy of the epic we have is incomplete. (This copy exists on a dozen clay tablets, each about the size of a slice of sandwich bread.) By paying close attention to the gaps in Sin-leqi’s version it’s just possible to patch it with later material. What you’ll read in any translation will be the result of a hundred and fifty years of this work. By no means complete.

So it should be clear that translating the Epic of Gilgamesh is not just a matter of having a poetic ear and a good Akkadian dictionary. There are a huge number of textual problems, each of which requires that a scholarly choice be made. Were the Sumerians smelting the iron meteorites that occasionally fell in the deserts surrounding their cities? Is this why the king’s axe receives pride of place among his attributes, because it was literally celestial? And is this why heaven-sent Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s friend, is referred to as his axe? And does this mean that whenever the poet talks about ‘a stone from heaven’ he’s really talking about metal? And on and on and on. The list of problems and unresolved questions of usage would, and does, fill a sizeable second volume of any translation.

Anyway, all of this is just a long way of saying that there is really only one guy who balances the huge knowledge of the language needed to translate the epic with the poetic sense needed to translate it well. That is Andrew George and this is his version.

Atrahasis: Belet-ili Creates Humanity


What follows is one Mesopotamian version of how and why humans were created.  It’s a bit like Genesis 2 (humans are shaped out of clay), but with more blood, deicide, and divine laziness.

When this excerpt starts, the ruling gods are dealing with a crisis: in a world without humans, the deities have to do all the work, and they’re exhausted.  After they go on strike and rebel, the ruling gods propose a solution.  




Atrahasis, Old Babylonian Version (seventeenth century BCE)

“Belet-Ili, the Divine Womb, is here.  [1]
Let the Divine Womb create new offshoots;
       let humankind carry the gods’ burden of labor.”

They called over the goddess to ask her —
       the gods’ midwife, wise Mami.
“You are the Divine Womb, creator of humankind!
       Create a primal human to carry the yoke.
Let him carry the yoke that Enlil assigned;
       let humankind carry the gods’ burden of labor.”

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Udug-hul Rituals

Udug-gul (”Evil Demons”) is a serialized composition of apotropaic rituals against demons and the sorcerers who manipulate them. Preserved on sixteen tablets, the collection contains rituals that span from the Old Akkadian (2300-2200) to the Seleucid periods (300-200). It is in the context of Udug-hul that the asipu most foreshadows the New Testament exorcist in his attribution of affliction to the demons, in his dependence upon divine powers to treat those afflictions, and in his own role as the mediator between that divine assistance and the human victim which includes a confrontation with the demonic antagonist.


As in Surpu, the incantations of Udug-hul help to restore the proper cosmic order. In this case, however, the order has been disrupted by one’s personal transgressions. Tablet 4 of Udug-hul concerns the identification of demons who have come up from the netherworld and their return by Enki to their proper place. Tablet 5 illustrates this in its description of the activity of seven demons called the “watchmen”:

The watchmen (demons) pursue anything

created in the Netherworld, the seed of An.

The watchmen constitute a sort of netherworld police force, but have left their proper domain and are misusing their authority in the upper world. In a case where the literary presentation may actually document the course of a disease, one by one the demons assault the patient in worsening stages:

the fifth lays him there on his bed.

As the sixth one approached the distraught man, he lifts his head from his belly

As the seventh one approaches the distraught man, (the patient) had already set his mind on

the Netherworld.

Udug-hul includes several passages which illustrate well the confrontation between the asipu and the demonic presences he seeks to drive out. These passages refer to the asipu’s making known his source of authority, and threats made against the demons not to harm him. From Tablet 6 of the collection we read:

I am the incantation priest, the sangamah of Enki.

The Lord (Enki) sent me to him (the victim), he sent to him me, the vizier of the Abzu.

You shall not shriek behind me,

nor shall you shout after me.

O evil man, may you not lift your hand (against me).

O evil demon, may you not lift your hand (against me).

Udug-hul also makes known the asipu’s uncompromising stance against the demons’ requests. From Tablet 8 the priest adjures the demon to depart:

Do [not say, “let me] stand [at the side].”

[Go out, [evil Udug-demon,] to [a distant place],

[go] away, [evil Ala-demon], to [the desert].

These passages show the asipu’s dependence upon and confidence in divine support for his craft, and an aggressive attitude toward the demons that one also finds in connection with the New Testament exorcists.

Source: Siebeck, 2.2.1.2

Image: Clay tablet; a Greek student’s exercise; on the front of this tablet is part of a cuneiform incantation against evil spirits written in both Sumerian and Babylonian; on the back the text has been repeated phonetically in Greek script. (Clay cuneiform tablet. Graeco-Babyloniaca; bilingual incantation, Udug-hul 9.) 3rdC BC-1stC BC.

sisterofiris  asked:

Hi! May I ask for advice on studying Akkadian (and Mesopotamia in general)? I'm an Ancient Greek student seriously considering taking more classes in the Mesopotamia department next year, but although it's a subject that interests me a lot, I don't know much about studying the language. How difficult is it? What should I expect? Any other tips? Thanks in advance :) I really enjoy your blog by the way, it's always nice to see your translations of ancient texts on my dash!

First, lucky you for having a Mesopotamia department at your university!  I totally encourage you to take a class or two about the culture, history, or religion, whether or not you study the language; the durability of clay tablets means that we know a lot more about Mesopotamia than most ancient civilizations, and its cultural heritage is really rich.

As for studying the Akkadian language, my answer is twofold.  Akkadian (a.k.a. Ancient Babylonian) is a Semitic language, like Hebrew and Arabic, so if you know one of those, it’ll help.  Just like knowing English helps with learning ancient Greek, you’ll come across root words that you already know, or grammatical features that work the same way.  If you’ve never studied any Semitic languages, then it’ll be more challenging, but it’s definitely an achievable challenge.  After all, if Babylonian five-year-olds could speak Akkadian, so can you. :-)

The tricky part comes when you shift from Akkadian as a language to cuneiform as a writing system.  Unlike English, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, cuneiform is not an alphabet; Akkadian cuneiform isn’t even a simple syllabary.  There are hundreds of cuneiform signs, and almost all of them have multiple meanings; the same sign could potentially mean several syllables, different entire words (ideograms), or a determinative (a silent sign that tells you about the word that follows, sort of like capitalizing a person’s name), and the only way to figure it out is from context.  There’s a reason that being a scribe was a respected occupation that took years of study.  Of course, the additional complexity also means that cuneiform has the potential for wordplay and literary cleverness that simple alphabets don’t allow.

Different universities teach Akkadian differently.  Some of them introduce you to cuneiform from the beginning, while others teach you the basic language in transliteration, then progress to cuneiform in later semesters.  For an undergrad beginner, I honestly think that the latter approach is better, since it lets you dive into reading actual texts more quickly, but your university probably only offers one or the other.  If you are learning cuneiform from the beginning, then my advice is to use flashcards (SO MANY FLASHCARDS) and be patient.  Decoding a line of cuneiform can be a lot like solving a rebus puzzle; the effort can be frustrating, but when everything clicks into place, it’s such a rewarding feeling.

Does that help?  I’m happy to answer more questions, publicly or privately!

Mattu and Sha-Nanaya (UET 5 87)

This is another short Old Babylonian contract in which a woman legally takes responsibility for another woman.  I commented on the last one that it wasn’t good evidence for same-sex marriage, but the practice depicted in this contract is much more intriguing.  In the process of creating a polygynous marriage (one husband, two wives), a woman first legally attaches herself to another woman, and the contract makes it clear that their bond as “sisters” supersedes their individual relationships with their husband.

It’s worth noting that, unlike certain other polygynous marriage contracts, this one mentions nothing about childbearing or inheritances.  We’re left to speculate about the reason for marrying Mattu and the exact relationships between the three parties, but if one wanted to explore ancient non-heterosexual relationships, this would certainly be an intriguing data point.




Regarding Ms. Mattu [1]:

Ms. Sha-Nanaya hereby takes her from her father Nidnat-Sin and her mother Beltum-Reminni, to be her sister.

Ms. Sha-Nanaya, her sister, hereby gives her to Mar-Ertsetim, her husband.

“Marrying one marries the other; divorcing one divorces the other.” [2]




[1] “Mattu” probably meant “abundance.”

[2] This is a clunky translation of the Akkadian legal phrase āhissa ihhassi ēzibša izzibši: “the one who marries her, will marry her; the one who divorces her, will divorce her.”

In other words, now that Sha-Nanaya has “taken Mattu as a sister,” they come as a pair; their husband cannot choose to divorce only one of them.  In a very similar contract, BIN 7 173 (written in Sumerian, but from the same time period), Tayatum takes Ali-abi as her sister, gives Ali-abi’s parents her bride-price, then “gives Ali-abi to Imgurrum [her husband] for marriage.”  After citing the same legal phrase as this text, it makes it explicit: “If in the future Imgurrum says to his wife Tayatum, ‘You are not my wife,’ she shall take the hand of her sister Ali-abi and leave.”

I just love the image of the two women walking into the sunset together, hand in hand.

Ancient statues destroyed by Isis in Mosul were 'fake', say officials

Ancient statues smashed by Islamic State (Isis) militants were plaster replicas, and the originals are safely stored in a Baghdad museum, said the institution’s director.

A video released in February by the extremist Sunni organisation appeared to show militants in Mosul smashing 1,000 year-old Assyrian and Akkadian statues, drawing condemnation from the international community.

But the head of the antiquity department in Iraq’s cultural heritage authority, Fawzye al-Mahdi, told German news programme Deutsche Welle that “none of the artifacts are originals”.

“They were copies. The originals are all here,” Baghdad Museum’s director told the broadcaster. Read more.