Do Sumerians go to school? (Year 5 – Spinney)

Sumerians were going to “school” to learn the cuneiform writing, the Sumerian language and mathematics! But not all of them were going. The school was called “house of the tablet” (é, even though it was not a building in itself: teaching was given in private houses to a small group of children. Such schools have been excavated in the cities of Ur and Nippur, for instance. The houses might be identified as schools when some types of school tablets are found in them, such as round clay tablets on which the young scribes were writing their first cuneiform signs.

Why do they write on an object that nobody can see? (year 5 – Spinney primary school)

Building a temple was one of the main duties of a Sumerian king. Numerous inscriptions tell us about kings building temple(s). Some of them wereon the walls or on statues, but others were written on objects buried in the foundations or on nails hammered in the walls.

These were for the gods, as proofs or reminders of the identity of the king who has built the temple. Hence, the kings make sure that the gods will remain favourable to his kingdom. These inscriptions often ended with a curse: the best way to dissuade any ennemy king to destroy the temple.

Foundation peg of Gudea
Foundation peg of Gudea

Are there horses in Sumer? (Emily – year 4)

Horses are known to Sumerians: they call them “donkey of the mountain” (anše.kur.ra). But horses are from Anatolia and Iran, where they were first domesticated probably around the fourth millennium BC.  But there were no horses in Sumer until the very end of the period during the so-called Ur III dynasty. Even then, they remain rare. A text that lists various kinds of the horse family in a city’s farms counts 38 horses for 2,204 donkeys. The donkey was by far more popular in Sumer: charriots were donkey-drawn and kings were riding donkeys.

Donkey-driven charriot (Standard of Ur - detail)

How do Sumerians bury their kings? (year 5 – Spinney primary school)

Sumerians do not build pyramids for their kings. Only few royal graves have been unearthed: the most famous ones are from Ur, and date from the Sumerian period (ca 2500 BC). More than thousand graves were excavated in the so-called Royal Cemetery of Ur, but only seventeen of themwere considered as royal tombs because the materials they contained was exceptionnaly rich. Two kings, Akalamdug and Meskalamdug, and one queen, Puabi, have been identified. In two of the tombs, there were evidence of human sacrifice: 74 servants were buried with their master (king?) in the “Great Death Pit” and in the “King’s tomb” soldiers with their weapons together with ox-driven charriots and 50 more servants both men and women were buried with the king. This practice is unparalleled in Mesopotamia.

The night of Pazuzu

Howling winds, pelting rain. The flames of the fire are like the dancing demons of the Underworld. This night will never end. We are all gathered in the main room of our house: my family, and the one of my best friend, Tabanu. But I am worried. I cannot help thinking about the old stories...

They say an entire district of Uruk disappeared in one night. Streets changed into torrents, sweeping away animals and human beings. Houses collapsed. Even those who had sought refuge in the temple of Anu died. Thousands of demons wandered in the city all night long, threatening, killing, snatching children. Pazuzu himself, the king of the demons, was seen at the top of the ziqqurat.

A dreadful scream suddenly fills the room, followed by horrific hissings, as if a demon dwells inside the walls. “This is Pazuzu”. No other demons would cry like that. We are all taken aback. I look at Tabanu: he is white as a sheet. My mother starts to mutter all kinds of incantations. Anu-Iksur, my brother, crawls to the tablets’ chest:

-  Do not worry: I will find the Sumerian incantation to fight Pazuzu. I already know the appropriate rituals.”

This does not reassure me at all: we don’t stand a chance to survive if our only hope is Anu-Iksur! I look at my Dad: he is talking in hushed tones with Rim-Addu, my sister’s husband, and Tabanu’s father, then says aloud:

-  The three of us will go out. We cannot leave Pazuzu prowling around the house: we have to chase him away. I have stones that will protect us against him, and some cedar oil to sprinckle on him. It will not kill him, but it should be enough to make him flee.

- I will go and get my cypress arrows at home, adds Tabanu’s father. According to the exorcists of Anu Temple, all objects made of wood from the Amanus forest are threats for the demons.

-  I am going with them, finally says Rim-Addu, I am not a bad archer: I could pierce the demon’s wings.”

They all are so brave! I am in awe of them, but not my mother:

-  Are you all insane? You cannot face Pazuzu! And you, Rim-Addu, how do you think you can shoot arrows in a pitch-black night?!

- Well, everybody knows that Pazuzu is glowing...

- Glowing???” Tabanu sounds terrified.

I know Rim-Addu is right. They say that Pazuzu’s body is glowing bluish, that his eyes are flames, his mouth is full of smoking, glimmering, red charcoals. If my Dad and the others dare to face him, they will become the new heroes of Uruk! If I go with them, I will be a hero myself! I whisper to Tabanu:

- Tabanu, we cannot miss that!” Then turn to the others: “We want to come with you! We can help, we can hand you the arrows!”

Etirtu, my big sister, snaps:

- You all are possessed! Do you want to finish the night in the Underworld with Nergal! Iqisha, Tabanu, you are too young! Rim-Addu, you should stand by me to protect our children. Who will defend us here if all our men are hunting demons in a stormy night?!”

My father speaks up:

- Anu-Iksur will stay with you.” Anu-Iksur nods immediately: he has no wish at all to go out:

- Yes, yes, I will protect you all, women. I will find the incantations; I will accomplish the rituals to protect you against Pazuzu, and all other demons. None will be able to enter the house without being disintegrated.”

My father agrees with him:

- Very good. I trust Anu-Iksur to protect you: he knows the rituals. I think Iqisha and Tabanu can come with us. If they stay close to us, there is nothing to fear for them.”

Outside, the rain is so dense - it is like a screen. It is so gloomy that I can hardly see the courtyard’s fence. The wind is strong enough to knock us down. The sky is full with demons: the terrifying shadows of their gigantic claws circle round us. I draw my sword to give myself courage. I can see from Tabanu’s face that he is not convinced it can be of some help.  I am not too sure either, but it is made of haluppu-wood, as if it was the sword of the Lady of the Sky herself.

Once more the shriek of the demon rings out in the night. Time to act. My Dad and Rim-Addu turn on the left to search for Pazuzu; Tabanu and I follow Tabanu’s father, alongside our house. He is walking fast: it is difficult to follow him. Tabanu slips and falls in the mud. I go to rescue him but when he stands up, his father is nowhere to be seen. We are all alone, surrounded by demons! And the horrible scream resounds again! We look up for the demon. There is Pazuzu! He is standing on the roof of my house. His eyes are indeed like flames, he is huge, he is staring at us, he spreads his huge wings and dives on us!

Tabanu yells and falls again. I am terrified but hardly have time to think! I must save Tabanu’s life! I grasp my sword, clench my father’s stone and rushes at Pazuzu, yelling at him the only Sumerian incantation I can remember. I throw myself at him to touch his wings with my sword: I can feel the chock when I hit him. I fall over, but he cries as in agony, and flees away! The rain and the wind start to slow down: I have chased away the king of the demons.

But is it over yet? We hear a weird noise, close to us, another demon inside the walls? Could this be an etemnu? A ghost? Suddenly, huge green eyes pierce the gloom, and a horrible beast jumps out of the wall drain. A cat! It only is a cat! It is so ugly, so skinny and so soaked that it looks like a dirty rag. But this means that we got rid of all the demons. I catch it: even if it is truly ugly, my little sister may want to adopt it. 

A World full of signs

Babylonian diviners were famous worldwide in the Ancient World, though the Greeks did not value their activities very much. According to them, Mesopotamian divination was nothing more than a jumble of superstitious beliefs.

I want to be a
diviner when I grow up. I
already know many omens:
my father
has tablets where
the signs and
their meanings
are written

But for the Mesopotamians, the world is ruled by a complex system of correspondences between signs and human life, that relates all events to one another. The omens, the signs were understood as messages from the gods.

Mesopotamian divination is a lot more than telling the future:
  • It is a mean to understand and explain the world
  • It is a mean to communicate with the god and obtain inaccessible information

Divination is thus essential in Ancient Mesopotamia: information sought through divination touches all aspects of life and everybody, the king as well as the commoners. People would turn to divination for the conduct of the war as well as for the building of a house.

Yet there is no fatality in Mesopotamian divination: all bad signs can be averted with incantations and appropriate rituals. Omens were only warnings.

There are two main categories of divination in ancient Mesopotamia, the provoked and unprovoked omens.
  • For the first ones, a specific question is asked to the gods, often a very detailed one. Extispicy, inspection of the entrails of sacrificial animals (mainly sheep), is the most widespread form of the provoked omens.
  • The unprovoked omens were a way to interpret the messages from the gods by paying attention to all signs, not only spectacular or extraordinary phenomena, but also ordinary ones.

I don’t like
much the idea to kill a sheep to
read its liver. I don’t want to be
a bārû, I want to be a ṭupšarru
to understand all the signs!

Plenty of Gods!

There were hundreds gods, goddesses and other demons or geniuses in the ancient Mesopotamian world.
Gods and goddesses are “living” in a city: their fate is linked to the political history of their city. They are strong when the city is powerful, weak when the city declines…

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The Mesopotamian Ziqurrat

The Mesopotamian ″stepped pyramids″, or ziqurrats, are surely the most
remarkable and impressive religious Mesopotamian buildings. After all, one of them was the Tower of Babel.

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