During the long ordeal of translating Tablet #36, I had many occasions to think about the scribe who wrote it ‑ and not always with a great deal of affection. I would often address him in my mind, saying things like, "Can't you just spell it out? Just once, spell it out!"; and sometimes, "*#x@%!!!". One time I even yelled aloud, "Are you trying to drive me crazy?" when I was the only one in the room. But I hasten to add, lest anyone think I am too much the crackpot, that I never heard him answer me back. Whenever I would translate a line that seemed particularly wild or funny, I would wonder, "Who could have written such a thing?" So I had many occasions to speculate about who he was, and what he was like.
Tablet #36 isn't signed, so the name of the scribe isn't known. Throughout these pages I refer to him as "the scribe", which sometimes seems kind of awkward. On this page I will use the name I have given him, Inim Shukur. It's meant to sound like a Sumerian version of William Shakespeare, and it literally means "Word Spear". It's who he is and what he does. His piercing satire slays The Great Fatted Bull. His signature is at the bottom of the page (and yes, there were Sumerians named Inim, "word"). I don't often refer to him by this name; to me, he's just "my bud", "my boy".
I have considered the possibility that Shukur wasn’t a scribe at all. Not everyone who could write was a full-time scribe. Some were simply merchants, who had to write in order to keep track of their inventory and business transactions. However, the language of The Great Fatted Bull is too sophisticated to have been written by someone who was only casually acquainted with the complexities of narrative cuneiform writing. The story is just too literary to have been written by a businessman, or the like. There can be little doubt that the story of The Great Fatted Bull was written by a full-time “wordsmith”.
Today we use the word “scribe” to mean a lowly clerical worker, so it may surprise some readers to learn that Shukur was definitely one of the social elite. In Sumer, a scribe was one of the few people in a town or village (or the world, for that matter) who could read and write. He was vital to the operations of business, religion, the state, and the community. In Sumerian society, a scribe was a person of considerable importance and status.
A study was recently done on the personal seals, the official “signatures” of the scribes (some of which are seen below and in the Images section). On the seals the scribes would identify themselves, usually in the manner of: “Lugal-e-ban-sha/ scribe/ son of Ur-Ishtaran ..." Of the scribes whose lineages could be traced, 70% were the known sons of the nobility, high temple officials, and rich merchants. Which on second thought is not very surprising; years of training in a scribal school was very expensive, and only the rich could afford it.
If Shukur was the son of a rich merchant, he probably became a scribe to help in the family business. A scribe could also be assigned to a temple, recording the many donations of sheep, cattle, and grain that were given by the people for the gods. Perhaps he was a part of the judicial system, recording the verdicts of trials, or he could be a teacher in one of the many scribal schools. A scribe could be in the service of a high-ranking official, such as Lugal-e-ban-sha, the scribe for the governor of Umma. In addition to his official duties, a scribe also had various functions within the community; for instance, reading and writing letters for people (which would also be a good way to make some extra money). These are the kind of things a scribe did for a living (he didn’t have a lot of time to sit around writing great literature). Anything in the town or village that had to be read or written had to pass through the hands of a scribe. At the very least it afforded him a comfortable living; it’s unlikely that any scribe ever went hungry for lack of paying work. A scribe was affluent, if not well-to-do, able to provide a good standard of living for himself and his family, without the back-breaking labor and the constant threat of hunger that was the fate of most people in the ancient world. And there was no limit to a scribe’s future, he could even be a member of the king's court, reading and writing the royal correspondence.
The upwards mobility of money. This is the official seal of a scribe, a person of great importance in Sumerian society. An elaborate seal like this one was very expensive and it displayed the high status of the owner. This scribe is a member of the court of Shu-Suen, the king who is seated on a throne. The king, in a shepherd's hat, is depicted as a living god. The goddess, wearing a horned helmet, who ushers the scribe into the king's presence, has her arms raised in the "reverence position". The king symbolically presents the scribe with a vial of oil for annointing, a singular honor from the god-king. Notice how the scribe doesn't hold up his hands in reverence like the goddess who accompanies him. It seems odd that a goddess raises her arms in reverence to the god-king, when a mere mortal does not. This suggests that the scribe is a member of the high nobility, or even the royal family itself. If so, he (or his father) had probably married into royalty rather than being born into it, because the writing on the seal reads: "Shu-Suen/ Mighty king/ King of Sumer/ King of the Four Quarters [of the World]/ Ur-kununna/ Scribe/ Son of Lu-Ningirsu, kurushda/ Your servant". A kurushda is someone who runs a large stockyard where animals (sheep, cattle, pigs, etc.) are fattened before they are sent to market. It's the occupation of the scribe's father. Click here to enlarge the seal. Also see: scribal social ranking on cylinder seal impressions.
Is it possible that Shukur, like some other scribes, was actually a member of the royalty? I seriously doubt it. I think we can discount that possibility right from the get-go, given the satirical tone of the writing. However, it is entirely possible that he was a son of the nobility. He could have been someone like Voltaire (1694-1778 A.D.), a member of the minor nobility who was not above making fun of lords and kings. Although it's possible, it’s still unlikely, and for the same reason: the story is just too sarcastic to have been written by any member of the ruling class, regardless of how minor (even Voltaire didn't ridicule the nobility so severely).
Since there’s no other evidence that Shukur was of noble birth, it would be unreasonable to assume it. I also think it unlikely that he was a temple scribe, simply because there is no religious context to the story. It’s my guess that Shukur was the son of a rich merchant and therefore of common birth, like the hero of his story, the shepherd brother. Not being a “blueblood” meant that the highest positions in the kingdom were not available to Shukur, since these usually went to the sons of royalty and the ranking nobility. Otherwise the courts were open to him, as they were open to any scribe. The content of the story suggests he was familiar with the nobility, or at least the local gentry, but the tone of the story suggests he wasn’t a part of it.
What about the man himself, what was he like? I always thought of him as an older man, middle aged or older. One reason why I think this is the “handwriting” on the tablet. It is very quick and sure, as if from many years of practice. This, by itself, doesn’t mean a lot; a younger man could also have handwriting that's quick and sure. Another reason is the sophistication of the language used in the story. Cuneiform writing (which bore little resemblance to spoken Sumerian) was difficult to master, requiring many years of study. Shukur uses the language with great skill and dexterity; he seems to be a very experienced writer, he may even have been a scribal school master. But then again, it’s also possible that a talented young man could have written the story. The main reason why I think Shukur is an older man is the “sarcastic” tone of the story. This, at first, might seem like a contradiction; today we associate sarcasm with youth. Young people today, who have only a sophomoric understanding of the world, and who have watched too much TV and seen too many movies, often adopt a flip and sarcastic attitude as a way of being “cool”. The writing on this tablet seems different. It doesn’t display the affected cynicism of a callow youth, instead it shows the mature wisdom that comes with age, the kind of wisdom that is accrued through a lifetime of experience. Although sarcastic, the humor in this story is never bitter, vain, or resentful, as one would expect from a spoiled young man, rather it is the broad humor of an older man, one who is better acquainted with “the ways of the world”.
He lived in turbulent times, in a rough and tumble world filled with violence and warfare. For Shukur, this tablet wasn't just some academic exercise; it was an accurate reflection of the world he lived in. Nor was he writing this story from the safe remove of time and distance, it was his life. So it’s remarkable that the humor in the story is without rancor, and that it even displays some optimism: Good eventually wins out over Evil, at least for a while.
Two tablets from the scribe Lugal-e-ban-sha. To the left is a tablet dated "The year the city of Harshi and it's territories were destroyed in a single day". The tablet on the right is dated "The year after the city of Kimash was destroyed." This indicates how much warfare was a part of daily life in ancient Sumer. The cities named are enemy towns. The Sumerian towns destroyed in retaliation were seldom mentioned in the year-names of the Sumerian calender. The image shows a seated goddess, probably Nisaba, the patron goddess of the scribes and the principle deity of Umma, Lugal-e-ban-sha's hometown. The figure standing before her is Lugal-e-ban-sha himself. He would be shown with his hands raised in the "reverence postion". Lugal-e-ban-sha's brother, En-kash, was also a scribe; as was his son, Ur-ma-ni. Click here to enlarge the picture.
Shukur himself was certainly bright and intelligent, with a ready wit and an easy laugh. He also had a philosophical frame of mind, which makes him one of the world’s first “laughing philosophers”. As a scribe, he was definitely well-educated. In 2000 B.C., scribes were some of the most educated men in the world. Not only were they able to read and write, they were also instructed in math, science, business, and literature, so they could write of these things intelligently. Shukur was also, no doubt, “good company”. Someone once wrote, “We are sometimes surprised by the modernity of our ancient ancestors.” Were Shukur alive today, he would be someone you'd want to hang around with, to share a few drinks, to discuss politics and philosophy, or to just joke around and have a good time. He would certainly have some good stories to tell.
The story of The Great Fatted Bull is about any tyrant, anywhere in the world, at any time in history. But it’s interesting to speculate: did Shukur have someone specific in mind? Is Lu-mah based on a real man? It’s possible that Shukur actually knew the Lord Lu-mah, The Great Fatso Himself, in person. He may have sat in the same banquet hall with Lu-mah, watching him eat. The lord, by his physique or his temperament, may have been flattered to be called “The Bull”. Although Sumerians sometimes used the image of a bull to represent wanton destruction, a bull usually symbolized strength and heroism. Gods and kings were often likened to bulls. The lord may have even called himself “The Bull”, but no one would dare call him “the fatted bull” to his face.
Man, bull, god.
In America, we’re accustomed to ridiculing our leaders to death. We call George W. Bush every kind of idiot that we can think of, then ask him to negotiate with our foreign enemies. We pull Bill Clinton's pants down in public, then push him onto the world stage. We forget that throughout history, ridiculing a powerful ruler was once a dangerous thing to do, anywhere in the world, and it’s still a dangerous thing to do in most of the world today. If Shukur was a modern Iraqi, he would be murdered immediately if he had written The Great Fatted Bull about Saddam Hussein. In the ancient world, this kind of ridicule of the nobility simply wasn’t tolerated, not even in the more advanced societies like those of the Greeks and Romans. Back then, a lord knew that if he allowed himself to be openly ridiculed in public he would not remain a lord for long. Anyone caught insulting a lord or a king was severely punished, and probably killed, as an example to everyone else. There was no talk about “freedom of speech” or “civil rights”. There were no legal niceties. Punishment was swift, violent, and merciless. History is littered with the bodies of men who thought they could get away with mocking the ruling class.
Historical speculations aside, however, there is still the tablet itself. In the story, the shepherd brother gives Lu-mah the least little bit of backtalk (it’s a mild rebuke, really, considering the circumstances) and he gets beaten half to death for it. Perhaps Shukur’s status as a scribe would save him from the worst kind of punishment, maybe he wouldn't be flogged like the shepherd brother, but at the very least he would be instantly hated by every powerful lord in the kingdom, men on whom his livelihood (and life) depended. If the story was considered generic enough, that is, if it didn't apply to one particular lord, then Shukur might have possibly gotten away with it, in much the same way that Voltaire got away with it. On the other hand, if some lord who too much resembled Lu-mah took this story to be a personal attack on himself, then no telling what would happen to the scribe who wrote it.
In the Annotations I say “the scribe could never ‘publish' this story or even quote it aloud at his local tavern”. Needless to say, there was no “publishing industry” in ancient Sumer, and there was no such thing as paper. Various literary tablets were hand-copied by the scribes and passed around to each other. In this way, popular stories got some kind of circulation, but most tablets (about 97% of them) were business records. Of the literary tablets, most were straightforward accounts of well-known mythological tales and historic events. There were few, if any, stories like The Great Fatted Bull making the rounds in Sumerian society. There were few original works of fiction, and there were none where the content of a tablet was so incendiary. Nor was it the kind of story that someone could loudly proclaim in a bar, among strangers. Some of the people in the bar could be potential informants, people willing to curry favor or reward from some great lord by pointing out the "speaker of evil".
This begs the question: If it was dangerous to even speak of the contents of this tablet, then why write it down at all? The answer to this question is in two parts.
Two bull/men subdue a man/bull. Or is it the other way around? The subject matter of this gold pendant isn't known, but it's bound to be an interesting story. Enlarge.
First of all, Shukur is a writer. A writer writes. It's in his nature. A writer is someone who has something to say about his life and the world. Shukur spent his days writing what other people wanted him to write; receipts, ledgers, records keeping, etc. This tablet is what he wanted to write about, what he wanted to say about the world he lived in. I'm willing to bet he was very proud of this tablet. He must have known that it was better than anything else ever written. For him, it was his own personal masterpiece. It was an example of his best craftsmanship, the best composition he could produce using the tools of his trade. Which must have been something of a dilemma for Shukur. He had this great story, but he couldn't really tell anyone about it. I’d like to believe that the story got some kind of public reading or performance and that Shukur could at least enjoy some local notoriety as the author of The Great Fatted Bull, but I think it's unlikely. When this tablet was written, Sumerian kings were worshiped as living gods; they weren't well known for their self-deprecating sense of humor. They would not be amused by Tablet #36.
The fact that Inim Shukur asserts that a king is not a god, but just a man, is enough to guarantee that the tablet could never be published (the shepherd brother gets whipped for saying the exact same thing, lines r1 through r3). I doubt that even a benign king like Gudea would tolerate the idea of the sex life of a great lord being publically ridiculed and the attempted assassination of a king being turned into some big joke. That is why I believe the story was never performed in public. This brings us back to the original question: why would the scribe risk writing it down in the first place? It really is a great story; but is it worth getting beaten for it, or perhaps even killed? This leads us to the second part of the answer:
That is why the tablet is written in code, so its contents couldn’t easily be deciphered.
Sumerians sometimes encoded business transactions to keep them secret. This was easy enough to do, simply substitute a few signs for each other; for instance, for “cattle” write “dog”, for "sell" write "run". The buyer and seller would each have a key with which to decode the signs. Tablet #36 is the only known literary tablet that is "encoded". This kind of encoding was easier done in Sumerian than in English. In English, words are instantly recognizable on the page. It wasn’t this way in Sumerian. A scribe did not so much “read” a line of text as “translate” it, because each of the signs had multiple meanings. He would first need to scan the signs in a line of text. Then, if he knew the context (subject) of the story, he could eliminate the many alternative meanings of the signs and use only those that made sense within the context of the story. If the context of the writing isn’t known, it is difficult to read a simple Sumerian sentence, even for another Sumerian. (Imagine trying to read this sentence if every word in it had multiple meanings and pronunciations). Because the context of Tablet #36 is deliberately obscured (see Transliteration and Appendix A) it is impossible to just casually read this tablet. If the tablet was placed in a stack with other tablets, it could be “hidden in plain sight”, in the same way it was hiding in plain sight at the Library of Congress when I first found it more than 4,000 years later. It’s therefore unlikely that the tablet was ever read by another Sumerian.
As I stated in the Introduction, the story of The Great Fatted Bull was probably known to only a few of the scribe’s most trusted friends and colleagues. That's because he needed to tellsomeone about the tablet. A writer writes because he wants to be read. It's reasonable to assume that Shukur shared the tablet with some of his friends, like-minded people that he knew he could trust. Shukur showed the tablet to some of his scribal buddies. He pointed out some of the signs. "You see how what I did here, substituted mah2 fo mah?" he would say. "Pretty clever, don't you think?" No one else actually read the tablet, but only heard it recited.
Here’s how I see it happening. Shukur and his buddies are sitting around drinking beer. The Sumerians drank beer through long straws (several feet in length) from a pot on the floor, as illustrated above. Sometimes it was a communal pot of beer, with several people drinking from it at the same time. The straw was used to avoid the foul-tasting foam on top of the beer. (I’m not sure why the Sumerians didn’t use a shorter straw, as we do today. Queen Pu-abi, who was barely five feet tall, had a gold drinking straw that was almost four feet long. Perhaps it was like the modern college trick of drinking alcoholic beverages through a straw to heighten the intoxication; Sumerian beer was not very strong). After a night of drinking and hilarity, the discussion turns to politics and “the ways of the world”. Shukur gets up, grabs an oil lamp, and staggers to a nearby table. He starts rummaging through a stack of cuneiform tablets. His friends look at each other and roll their eyes. They know what he is up to, and they know there’s nothing they can do to stop him. Nor do they want to, they know that the story of The Great Fatted Bull gets better with each re-telling, with the added details that Shukur always throws in. He returns to his seat, but he doesn't sit down; he needs to move around to tell this story. Still standing, he bends over to take another long draw of beer. Shukur straightens up; his eyes are bright, he’s smiling. He holds the tablet at arm’s length (the tablet is just a prop; he doesn’t need to read it, he knows it by heart) and he begins to tell the story. It’s always a dramatic recitation, and if he’s drunk enough, he acts it out. His voice changes, depending on the character; it becomes deeper when he speaks as the fatted bull, it’s high and fluty when he speaks as the mother. Shukur makes comical exaggerated bows when he addresses "The Great Fatso". Then he throws in a few suggestive comments when he talks about the wife and the neighbor woman (like most Sumerians, his humor is sometimes rather crude). He pauses for dramatic effect at the appropriate places, or at the “laugh lines”. His friends begin to throw in their own comments. As Shukur gets more and more wound up (now he’s “playing to the audience”) his comments become wilder and more exaggerated. He rocks back on his heels, and laughs at his own jokes. . .
When you read the story of The Great Fatted Bull, you can hear him still, laughing through the ages.