The Great Fatted Bull
Tablet #36
Sumerian Images
Sumerian History
The Royal Tombs of Ur
The Standard of Ur:  War
The Standard of Ur:  King
The "Standard" of Ur?
Vulture Stele Translation
Sumerian War Chariots
War Chariot Deconstructed
Gudea Translation
The Face of Gudea
The Face of Ur-Ningirsu
The Face of Lugal-agrig-zi
Ur-Namma Translation
The Face of Ur-Namma
Face of Ur-Namma, part II
I am Ur-Namma
The Face of Shulgi
Who Were the Sumerians?
Other Sumerian Kings
The Princess Wife
The Great Fatted Jackass
Sargon's Victory Stele
Helmet: the King of Kish
The Standard of Mari?
The Invention of Writing
Adventures in Cuneiform
The Sumerian Scribe
Scribal Social Rankings
Early Old Babylonian?
A Masterpiece
Site Map

Ruins of the city of Umma. This photograph shows the extensive damage caused by looters since the beginning of the Iraq war.

     The Library of Congress has not published the provenance of Tablet #36. So it's not known where the tablet was found or the archaeological context in which it was discovered.

     The Library of Congress has Tablet #36 dated in the (late) Ur III period. The CDLI has it dated as (Early) Old Babylonian. When I was translating this tablet, I was unaware of the CDLI's dating, and had accepted the LoC's Ur III date. During my research, I didn't see any compelling reason to change my mind about it because I saw a lot of Ur III tablets that looked just like this one. But then again, some Early Old Babylonian tablets also looked the same, so from the beginning I’ve known that the tablet might be Early Old Babylonian (I love that expression, Early Old Babylonian). The truth is, there’s not a lot of difference in the writing between Late Ur III and Early Old Babylonian. Late Ur III is the period just before the fall of Sumer, and EOB is the period right after it.

    When I first learned of the CDLI's dating, I wasn't very happy about it. I wanted the
Ur III date which would make this tablet unequivocally Sumerian. I have to admit, I have something of an attitude towards the Babylonians. To me, they are the nouveau riche, the    "Johnny-come-latelys", who didn't even show up until after 2000 B.C.

    I always had one qualm, however, about the Ur III dating. It was my belief that the tablet may have been “preserved” when the city was destroyed, which leaves some doubt as to the fate of the scribe who wrote it (see cuneiform tablet in the Invention of Writing). If the tablet was indeed written in EOB times, it means the scribe had survived the fall of Sumer, and was perhaps writing of recent events. It’s a thought I find reassuring, so if the tablet is ultimately found to be Early Old Babylonian, then it’s fine by me (with a couple of provisos).

Tablet dated "The year Ur was besieged by the Elamites." The Sumerian civilization was destroyed by the Elamites and then later adopted by the Akkadians/Babylonians.

       If Tablet #36 is EOB, that means it was written soon after the final collapse of Sumerian civiization (dated by historians as the fall of the city of Ur, at around 2004 B.C.). This tablet may even be a description of the turbulent events leading up to the Fall of Sumer, or it may be a description of the chaotic period of instability that immediately followed.

       Although the tablet may be dated Early Old Babylonian, it is clearly Sumerian. Anyone writing in the early EOB period was most likely born and raised Sumerian, and doubtless thought of themselves as Sumerian, even after the fall of Ur.  The tablet may be expressing a yearning for the return of the righteous Sumerian shepherd kings.

      All speculation aside, however; there is still the tablet itself. Tablet #36 is written in the
Sumerian language, not the Akkadian language. The crux of the tablet, "Lu-mah", is a pun on Sumerian words, not Babylonian words, and the story itself is distinctly Sumerian. The bullman was a common motif for the Sumerians, but not for the Akkadians. The story of
The Great Fatted Bull is quintessentially Sumerian.

        When I first translated this tablet, I had not yet discovered tablet BE 31,28,
The Princess Wife, and tablet SEM 114, The Great Fatted Jackass. All three stories are
variations on the same theme. I believe Tablet #36 was the original story, and it was probably derived from an early Sumerian fable. Tablets BE 31,28 and SEM 114 came later. They are dated in the Old Babylonian period; not Early Old Babylonian, just Old Babylonian. I suggest that even if all three tablets were dated Old Babylonian, more than a hundred years after the fall of Sumer, they were still written by Sumerians

       Being a scribe would be the natural occupation of many Sumerians who survived the fall of Sumer. The written word still used the Sumerian sign system. Administrative tablets continued to be written in Sumerian. Literary and religious works were written in Sumerian, long after Sumerian ceased to be a spoken language, and Sumerian compositions were studied in scribal schools throughout the entire Old Babylonian period (1900 – 1600 B.C.).

       The Babylonians co-opted Sumerian literature as their own. Most of the examples of Sumerian literature that are found on the ETCSL were written during the Old Babylonian period, hundreds of years after the end of Sumerian civilization. Why is that?  Why were the great works of literature written in the Sumerian language rather than the Akkadian language of the Babylonians?

        It’s natural to assume that the scribes writing during the Old Babylonian period were
of course Babylonian. I suggest otherwise, that most of the scribes were Sumerians. I’m sure scribal schools were the enclaves of Sumerians and their descendants who took pride in their heritage and who sought to keep the memory of Sumer alive. They continued to identify themselves as Sumerians, not Babylonians.

       The Sumerians scribes were very proud of their culture (rightfully so). They cherished
the memory of Sumer and tried to keep it alive for as long as possible. As time went on,
it became obvious that the Sumerian civilization would not once again rise from the ashes,
as it did several times before. Although they outwardly conformed to Babylonian culture,
which was not too dissimilar from their own, they tried to maintain their unique identity as Sumerians. In their hearts and minds, they were still Sumerians.

       For hundreds of years the Babylonian kings continued to model themselves on the shepherd kings of Sumer. Even if many of the Babylonian kings were good kings, the Sumerians wouldn’t think so. They would disdain the Babylonian kings as pale imitations of the original Sumerian kings, and therefore subject to ridicule. The Sumerian scribes were irreverent outsiders, despite their assimilation into Babylonian culture. They, not the
native-born Babylonian scribes, were the ones most likely to have a jaundiced view of the Babylonian god-kings. They could not resist a king with weapons. This kind of resistance
was out of the question, but they could resist the king with words, with satire. I suggest the
three satires of The Great Fatted Bull, The Princess Wife, and The Great Fatted Jackass,
can properly be considered as “Notes from the Sumerian Underground.”
Perhaps the Library of Congress has some documentation that will help establish when and where this tablet was written. Meanwhile, the important thing to remember about this tablet is:
it’s Sumerian, not Babylonian.

Tablet #36:  The story of The Great Fatted Bull