A clay tablet, 4,000 years old, reveals a hidden masterpiece.
This is a translation of Tablet #36 (“Unknown: Inscribed obverse and reverse”) displayed on the Library of Congress website, "Cuneiform Tablets: From the Reign of Gudea of Lagash to Shalmanassar III". The tablet is labeled "incomprehensible” because of its unusual wording and syntax. This is my own translation of the tablet, independent of the Library of Congress.
The Mystery Tablet:
The Library of Congress acquired Tablet #36 from a private collector in 1929, so it was probably discovered some time in the early part of the century. This tablet has always been shrouded in mystery. The author is anonymous and the title of the composition isn't known. The tablet was written somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, in what is now modern day Iraq, but where exactly isn't known for certain. It has been dated in two different periods of history, Ur III and Early Old Babylonian, both about 4,000 years ago. It was also mistakenly classified as an "Administrative" tablet rather than as "Literature". Even the actual size of the tablet isn't exactly known, its measurements are given as "70?x?x? mm". The writing on the tablet is so enigmatic, not even the subject of the story could be deciphered. Every sign on this tablet is a commonly used cuneiform symbol, but the writing doesn't seem to make any sense. Individual words and phrases hinted at various meanings, yet still the tablet could not be read. For almost 100 years this mysterious tablet offered many tantalizing clues as to its content, but it resisted all attempts at translation (see a related article; perhaps unsurprisingly, the tablet is misidentified as tablet #37, its list number, rather than #36, the tablet number).
As it turns out, there's a very good reason why the tablet couldn't be read. It is written in code. A modern Sumerologist trying to resurrect an ancient dead language isn't the only one who would have difficulty reading this tablet, not even another Sumerian could easily read it. This tablet was deliberately encoded so it couldn't be read by anyone, except for the scribe who wrote it. The scribe leaves a hint, however, a key to the code. One single sign (mahX), one among hundreds, provides a clue to the hidden content. Once this sign is understood, then the mysterious tablet finally opens up, revealing. . .
More mysteries. . . and a literary masterpiece. It is the world's first "murder mystery", and the world's first comedy (a dark comedy, at that). Most importantly, however, it is also the world's first political satire. (Since the Sumerians were the ones who invented literature, any first in Sumerian literature is a first in world literature.)
The tablet is a literary tour-de-force, full of clever wordplay and layered meanings, written by a Sumerian Shakespeare at the dawn of literature. Although seemingly a simple fable and not very long (about 40 lines), it's a complicated saga full of sex and violence, comedy and adventure. This tablet is not just another tired retelling of a well-known story, such as a mythological tale or an historic event. It is an original work of fiction, with a plot that is filled with unexpected twists and turns, hidden and double meanings, humor, symbolism, and sophisticated satire (see Annotations). On this clay tablet the scribe single-handedly “invents” modern literature, which is all the more impressive in a language that's as difficult as ancient Sumerian. These forty lines are the best ever written in the Sumerian language, and they can hold their own against any of the world’s great literature, ancient or modern.
This is indeed a "dark comedy". There are some terrible things happening in this story, but it's told in a humorous manner. No other Sumerian story is so completely comical throughout the text. This tablet is also the world's first "murder mystery". There are at least two attempted murders on this tablet. The perpetrators are never named, but clues to their identity and their motives are deliberately planted in the story (Hint: in this murder mystery, the butler didn't do it). This scribe is always creating mysteries, in the way he encodes the tablet and in the way he tells the story; but he always leaves the clues that are necessary to solve these mysteries. He doesn't encode a tablet so that it can never be read, or ask a riddle that can never be answered. That would be too easy.
Tablet #36 continues to be a mystery, even to this day, because the ending of the story is missing due to damage on the tablet. I think I know how the story ends, but I will let you figure it out for yourself using the clues that are provided.
Most importantly, however, from an historic perspective:
This tablet is also the world’s first political satire. The “ancient” Greeks are generally credited with the invention of political satire, sometime around 500 B.C. This tablet is fifteen centuries older. On this tablet the scribe satirizes great lords and kings. This was once a dangerous thing to do, not just in Sumer but anywhere else in the ancient world. One did not casually ridicule a powerful ruler. To do so could have fatal consequences, as the story itself reveals. When this tablet was written, Sumerian kings were worshiped as living gods, so it's unlikely that they would allow themselves to be the objects of public ridicule. This is why the tablet is written in code, so it couldn't be easily read by anyone except the one who wrote it. It's therefore doubtful that this tablet was ever “published”, in any sense of the word. This masterpiece was probably known to only a few of the scribe’s most trusted friends and colleagues.
I recommend that you first look at the tablet (photographs and line-drawing) in the Tablet section. Then read the Translation. It's a line-by-line translation of the tablet without a lot of explanatory comment. Next read the Annotations, which gives the historic background of the tablet and explains its intricate word-play and hidden meanings (you really need to read the Annotations to get the full meaning of the story). The Transliteration explains how the tablet was decoded, but is probably of interest only to those who specialize in ancient Sumerian. Just follow the tabs in order, or you can use the Site Map.
I hope you enjoy reading "The Great Fatted Bull". It's a great story from a great writer who has waited 4,000 years to be published.
Gud Gal-Niga. (Bull Great-Fatted). The way "Great Fatted Bull" is written and pronounced in Sumerian.
For futher reading, I have included some Images of Sumerian life, and some more translations. I have also included two new discoveries that I made, The Face of Ur-Namma and The Face of Gudea. Also, I have come up with many original discoveries about the Standard of Ur, and I have included the most comprehensive collection of the treasures from The Royal Tombs of Ur that can be found anywhere on the Internet. Plus much more ...
It's been reported that people are unwilling to read more than two paragraphs on a website, and you have already read more than that now, in just this introduction. This website has a lot more information than you could possibly read in a single sitting, so none of that “web surfing”, reading quick and shallow. You should read this website like you read a book, at your leisure.
So sit back, relax; "set a spell", as we say down south. No need to be in any big hurry. You can go on a Sumerian adventure without leaving the comfort of your armchair.