Methods used by Mesopotamian scribes to conceal the context of political satires
Three unusual cuneiform tablets were discovered about a hundred years ago. Many of the best Sumerologists in
the world attempted to translate the tablets, but without success. I would
suggest they were unable to read the tablets because the scribes didn't want
them to. The scribes deliberately “encoded” the tablets to make them difficult
to read. That's because the tablets are actually political satires. At the
time, Mesopotamian kings were worshiped as living gods, so making fun of them
was a risky proposition. The scribes therefore needed to be very careful about it. In this article, I willl describe the many ingenious ways that the
scribes concealed and obscured the “secret context” of the satires, making the
tablets very difficult to decipher (but not impossible). These methods include, but
are not limited to, puns, “trick signs”, and clever wordplay.
A trick sign is a sign that is written to deceive. Its purpose is to make a tablet difficult to read, to hide the secret meaning of
a satire. Trick signs appear on three different tablets:
Tablet #36 The Great Fatted Bull
BE 31,28 The Princess Wife
SEM 114 The Great Fatted Jackass
#36 was acquired by the Library of Congress in 1929 and labeled
“incomprehensible”. Tablet BE 31,28 was found by the Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania in 1893. The first
attempt to translate it was by Stephen Langdon in 1914. He thought it was a Dialogue between Two Women, but he was
unable to offer a complete translation of the tablet so he did not publish it.
Edward Chiera first attempted to translate tablet SEM 114 in the early part of
the twentieth century, but he could not read the tablet.
Modern Sumerologists can read anything
written in the Sumerian language, and yet they could not read these three
simple tablets. That's because the scribes didn't want anyone to read them. Modern Sumerologists, trying to resurrect an
ancient dead language, are not the only ones who would have difficulty trying to
decipher these tablets. Even a Sumerian scribe could not easily read them. These tablets were deliberately designed to
be difficult to read because they are political satires about great lords and
kings. Tablet #36 is the story of The
Great Fatted Bull, the bull who would be king. BE 31,28 is The Princess Wife, the story of the
Great Fatted Donkey and his wife, and SEM 114 is The Great Fatted Jackass. The stories are variations of the same
theme and they have many of the same sentences in common.
Mocking the ruling class was a
dangerous thing to do (and it’s still a dangerous thing to do in most of the
world today). Sumerian kings were worshiped as living gods, so they were not
the least bit amused when people made fun of them. In the story of The Great Fatted Bull, the
shepherd gets flogged when he ridicules Lu-mah for wanting to be
worshiped as a god.
In the ancient world, ridiculing the nobility
simply wasn’t tolerated. Back then, a lord knew that if he allowed himself to
be openly ridiculed in public he would not remain a lord for long -- because it undermined
his authority. A ruler could not run his kingdom if he was the object of public
ridicule. So anyone who openly insulted a lord or a king was severely punished,
and possibly 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. (from The Scribe
on this website)
So if a scribe wanted to write satirical
story about great lords and kings, he had to be very circumspect about it. He
didn’t want anyone to causally read the story and then report him to the
authorities. To prevent this from happening he needed to somehow disguise or
obscure the context (subject) of the satire. This was done through the use of trick signs,
puns, and clever word play.
This kind of encoding was easier done in
Sumerian than in English. In Sumerian, “context is
everything” because all of the signs have multiple meanings and pronunciations.
In English, written words are instantly recognizable. This wasn’t true for
Sumerian writing. A scribe did not read a line of text, he translated it. He first scanned the signs in a line of text; then, if he knew the context of the
sentence, he could eliminate the many alternative meanings of the signs and select
only the definitions that made sense within the given context (imagine trying
to read this sentence if every word had up to a dozen different meanings and
pronunciations). If the context of the writing wasn’t known, it was difficult
to read even a simple Sumerian sentence, even for another Sumerian.
It was easy to make a tablet unreadable
because Sumerian writing is barely readable to begin with. If a scribe wanted
to obscure the meaning of a tablet, the simple and obvious method was to
arbitrarily change some of the signs. For “king”, write “dog”; for “plunder”,
write “bark”, and so on. This could make a tablet incomprehensible, and only
the scribe would know its intended meaning. The scribes of the three tablets discussed
here take a different approach. They didn't want to make a tablet completely
unreadable. Instead, they write a story in a way that
makes it incomprehensible to the casual reader, but they provide all the
necessary clues for a diligent reader to eventually decode the tablet.
A few trick signs, strategically placed, can
obscure or disguise the over-all context of a tablet. For instance, mahX
disguises the “king” context of Tablet #36. Without knowing the context of the
tablet makes it nearly impossible to decide which of the multiple meanings of a
sign is the one being used (there can be up to a dozen different meaning for
each sign). As described in the transliteration for Tablet #36, I spent months
trying to figure out the tablet without making any visible progress in the
translation. After I decoded mahX and deciphered the “king” context of the
story, then I finally started to understand this enigmatic tablet.
the context of a political satire, all of the signs suddenly made sense.
Without this context, none of them did. This also explains why the tablet was
encoded in the first place – to disguise the secret meaning of the satire.
of the same trick signs are also used on BE 31 28 and SEM 114, the translation
of these tablets was relatively easy for me (in as much as any Sumerian translation
can be considered “easy”) even though they fooled numerous experts during the
past 100 years.
The beauty and brilliance of these scribal tricks is they all make perfect sense once you understand them.
understand these tablets, you cannot read them too literally because the
scribes are trying to trick the reader. You have to keep an open mind about it, to
think, “This is what the scribe is saying, but what does he really mean?”
The scribes use five different methods to obscure the context of a political
signs that are puns for other signs. The signs are pronounced the same, but
they are written differently and they have different meanings.
Signs: signs that are slightly altered so they look like other signs. These
signs have different meanings that do not fit into the context of the
signs with definitions that are used in ways for which they were never
Emesal Dialect: used to make the tablets more difficult to read.
Double Rulings: disguises the nature of a tablet.
Some of the trick signs I have denoted with the subscript
number “X”, e.g., mahX for mah2. Subscript numbers are modern
conventions used to indicate the different definitions of a sign. The “X” not only stands for an unknown subscript number,
it also means “mysterious” because the signs were written to deceive.
1. Scribal Puns:
Part of line o3 on Tablet #36
On Tablet #36, the first two signs of the
first readable fragment of a line is a hint to the "hidden context"
of the satire. The two signs are lu2-AL. Lu2 usually means “man”, but AL is
more problematic (the capitalized sign name is used when it is not yet known
which of its various meanings and pronunciations is the one being used). The sign
is used persistently and intrusively throughout the text, as if the scribe was
deliberately over-using the sign for some unknown reason; which seems rather
odd, because this ubiquitous sign is completely bewildering in every sentence
where it appears. Al is most often used as a “grammar sign”, as a Compound Verb
Nominal Element, to be precise, but this definition doesn't fit into any of
AL (mah2) and mah.
One of the secondary definitions of AL is
mah2, an adjective for a "mature, milk producing cow". Mah2 refers to
any female animal that has given birth and is therefore capable of producing
milk. I briefly considered it as a possible translation for the sign, but I
immediately discarded it because it would be completely nonsensical in any
sentence where it appeared. However, the important thing about mah2 is that it's pronounced like mah (the numerical subscripts of a sign are
"silent", so mah and mah2 are pronounced the same). Mah means “great,
supreme, large, majestic”, etc. I define mahX as the sign mah2 (cow) written to
mean mah (great). As per the pun meaning of mahX, the signs lu2-mahX can be
translated as "man-great". On this tablet, lu-mah is synonymous with
the sign lugal (man-great) meaning "lord or king". This is the secret
context of the satire: lu2-mahX = "man-great" = lugal = king. Lu-mah
is the name of the Great Fatted Bull. It is a name that describes his role in
the story while at the same time hiding his identity.
if mah2 is initially considered as a possible translation for the sign, it
would be immediately discarded as nonsensical (man dairy cow?) and so the pun
would be lost, and along with it, the hint to the secret context of the tablet.
This is the beauty and the genius of this sign (pun). Even if the reader
guesses the correct pronunciation of the sign, he does not believe it because it
is the wrong definition. In my opinion, it's very clever.
MahX is both the lock and
the key to this tablet. It obscures the true meaning of the text (the lock),
but once it's understood it reveals the hidden context of the satire (the
key), which makes it possible to read the other signs on the tablet. The
repeated use of mahX is like the tumblers of the lock. A key doesn't work
until all of the tumblers are in place. When a single word fits in all
eight sentences, then, and only then, the tablet finally opens up and its true
meaning is revealed. As previously mentioned, I could not translate the tablet
until I deciphered lu2-mahX.
MahX occurs multiple times on Tablet #36 (see
lines o3, o7, o8, and r14). Several “compressed” versions of the sign (that
looks a lot like rah2) occur in lines o11, r7, r10, and r11, where the word
“great” fits seamlessly into the context of the sentences. MahX is also used on
BE 31,28 (lines o8, o13, and o20) and on SEM 114, line o1. In all of these examples,
mahX (mah2, “cow”) is written to mean mah, “great”.
Nunus, nu-nus, and nu-nus the way it is
(one word) means “an egg or an ovoid bead”. Nu-nus (two words) usually means
“woman”. With two signs stacked on top of each other, it would be difficult to
fit nu-nus within the narrow lines of a tablet, so naturally the scribes found
an easier way to write it, as shown on the right.
NunusX is the most important trick sign on BE
31,28. I define nunusX as a pun that means either “woman” or “not woman”.
Nu-nus is Emesal dialect for munus, meaning “woman”. Munus is the
sign that is most commonly used to mean “woman”. Nu-nus is rarely used. There
are 3,065 citations for munus on the ePSD and only 14 citations for nu-nus. The
scribe uses this rare sign to obscure the meaning of the text. The scribe also deploys
the sign in a very unusual manner. In line o16, nu-nus is written simply as
nunus. Since it is written at the very beginning of the line, there is no
pretense about including the nu portion of the sign. This is a hint that the
scribe intends to use the sign this way (without nu) to mean “woman”. The
scribe is using the pronunciation of nunus to mean “woman”, rather than
the literal signs for nu-nus. The sentence begins, “Women in abundance...”
NunusX is mentioned a second time in line
o16. It would be tempting to read this sign as nu-nus, “woman”, but it is a
trick. Nu is also the Sumerian sign for negation (no, not, without). In this
case, nu-nus means “no woman”. The entire sentence reads, “While the women live
in abundance, Mulu has no power, no women, and no virtue.” (See
line o16 and note the recurring appearance of the sign nu.)
NunusX also occurs in Iine o5. Now the nu negation
applies to the preceding sign, zu, meaning “to know”; i.e., Mulu “knows-not
women”. The signs may also mean that Mulu "knows-not beads (nunus)".
Both interpretations could easily apply to the context of the sentence.
Nu-nus occurs again in the very next sentence
(r6). This is the only time that the sign is used correctly. In this case,
nu-nus means what it is supposed to mean; i.e., “woman”. The line translates
as, “All women are a prostitutes for
men who plunder.”
The unusual way that nu-nus is used makes it
difficult to translate the tablet, and it makes the meaning of the text
ambiguous, which was the intent all along. The scribe is trying to confuse the
reader. If the scribe wanted to make his meaning clear, he would have simply
used munus, which is the standard sign for “woman”. That way there would be no
confusion. Instead, the scribe uses nunusX (nu-nus/nunus) to keep the reader
Sipad, su8-ba, and su-ba
Sipad is the usual sign for
"shepherd". Su8-ba is
the lesser known Emesal form of sipad.
On the ePSD there are 2,641 citations for sipad, but only 25 for su8-ba. The
scribe of Tablet #36 takes it a step further by using a pun at the sign level,
making it into su-ba. It is pronounced like su8-ba, but it is unrecognizable as
a "shepherd". Su-ba is the name of “the shepherd brother”, the hero
of the story. Like Lu-mah, the name of the Great Fatted Bull, it is a name that
describes the character’s role in the story while also hiding his identity. The
shepherd's identity is concealed because Sumerian kings were often called the
shepherds of their people; so by disguising the shepherd, the "king"
context of the tablet is also obscured.
2. Trick Signs:
Gu has two vertical lines,
but it often written with only one, as shown on the right.
Geme2 normal BE 31,28 Tablet #36 SEM 114
GemeX is a trick sign for geme2, meaning “a female
servant or slave”. It is a trick sign because it is written with only two
reverse cunei instead of the usual three. With just two reverse cunei, it looks
just like gu, meaning “rope or cord” The sign geme2 is disguised because
people would be interested in reading a story about slave women, but the scribe
doesn't want anyone to read the tablet. Any story about slave women is bound
to be interesting, but who wants to read a story about cord? By hiding the “slave woman”, gemeX also helps to obscure the “lord
and king” context of the satire, since lords and kings (and possibly rich
merchants) are the ones most likely to be the owners of slave women.
GemeX is used four times on Tablet #36. Needless
to say, gu (cord) doesn’t fit into the context of any of the sentences. GemeX
is also used on BE31,28 (lines o12 and r1) and on SEM 114, line o2.
Gu4: normal, compressed, and the way it appears on Tablet #36.
is the sign for “bull, ox”. On Tablet #36 it is written in its compressed form,
but it is also missing the vertical stroke. As written, the sign could be
interpreted as 2(eše3) or the Old Babylonian version of bi. The sign 2(eše3) is
two of a particular unit of measure and it is meaningless in the context of the
sentences. The Old Babylonian version of bi is a sign that has been stripped of
most of its identifying structure, as part of the process of simplifying the
signs. It did not appear until very late in the Old Babylonian period when lots
of other signs were simplified almost beyond recognition, which is not the case
on this tablet. Gu4 is one of the simplest of the Sumerian signs (it looks like
a pictograph of a bull’s head) and it is half of the context of Tablet #36, and
yet it is miswritten four times out on five. It is written correctly only once
(at the end of line o8 where it is written the smallest, crowded into the
margin of the tablet) as a hint to the true meaning of the sign. It is not a
scribal mistake; it is used solely for the purpose of concealing the “bull”
context of the tablet. As a result, I had great difficulty discerning the bull
context of the story, which would have been obvious if the signs were written
When I first translated line o5 of Tablet #36, I naturally
interpreted the two signs as gal-niga, “great-fattened”. I noticed that
the signs were a bit unusual because the horizontal line of gal is longer than normal,
completely bisecting the niga (še) cluster of reverse cunei. I didn't pay much
attention to it because I thought the signs were written this way to save space
on the line. Besides, in cuneiform writing it is easy to accidentally write a horizontal
line longer than intended. This can be seen on many tablets, and it also occurs
at the end of line r10 where the horizontal line of be6 is much too long. I
later discovered that in rare instances the sign gi4 is written in a way that looks a lot like
gal-niga, as shown below.
and a rare variant
Here gi4 is written without the two vertical
lines that distinguish the sign. It is also written with the še cluster instead
of the simple linear strokes usually found on gi4. As a result, this version of
gi4 looks just like gal-niga, so perhaps someone could read the signs on Tablet
#36 as gi4 instead of gal-niga. Gi4 is nonsensical in the context of the
sentence, rendering the entire sentence unreadable. If the scribe did indeed write
gi4, it means he used the super-simplified version of gi4 that looks exactly
like gal-niga to trick the reader into thinking it is not gal-niga.
The sign IN
all Sumerian signs, IN has a variety of meanings, but it is most often used as
a “grammar sign”; for instance, a “third person singular pronominal element”.
Henbur2, and henburX as written on Tablet #36.
Henbur2 grain is the edible parts of a reed
or rush. I define henburX as any sign that uses IN to mean “grain-his”, or any
modification of the sign henbur2 that makes it look like IN. HenburX is used
extensively on Tablet #36 and on BE 31,28. It makes sense that henburX is used
to hide the “grain” context of the tablets because these stories are all about
grain, which symbolizes wealth and plunder.
Tablet #36, the scribe uses the IN cluster of reverse cunei for the sign henbur.
It should have the še (grain) cluster, but then again, the scribe uses eight different versions of še in signs
like zid, li, gal-niga, kur9, etc. As written, henbur looks a lot like IN, but
with only one vertical stroke. Of course it could be three scribal errors, but
it seems unlikely that the scribe would mistakenly write IN this way in the
exact three places where henbur fits perfectly into the context of the
sentences. IN is meaningless in these sentences, both in terms of grammar and
HenburX "grain-his" on BE 31,28.
BE 31 28, a different variant of henbur X is used. It is basically a pun
meaning “grain-his” (the second part of the sign is the possessive suffix
“-ni”, which translates as “his/her”.
This version of henburX occurs twice in line o12, as seen below:
HenburX on line o12 on BE 31,28
The translation is “wife his grain-his
decide servant-her slave cut twig this grain-his
get”. IN does not fit into the sentence’s grammar or context.
"HenburX-his" on BE 31,28.
different variation of henburX is used in line o14. This version uses the
ŝe (grain) cluster of reverse cunei, plus the “-ni” suffix for “his”, so it
would be tempting to read the sign as “grain-his”, like the two examples from
o12. However, notice that the sign is followed by a-ni. This is the word for “his”, as opposed to the suffix –ni, which also means “his” (I
know, Sumerian can be very confusing). If the first sign is interpreted as
“grain-his” and it is followed by a-ni, “his”, the phrase would be translated
as “grain-his his”, which of course is incorrect. In this particular case, the
first sign is actually a variation of henbur, like the one used on Tablet #36,
with a slight difference:
Henbur, henburX on Tablet #36, and henburX on BE 31,28, line o14.
Tablet #36, henburX has the incorrect
IN cluster of reverse cunei, followed by the correct single vertical stroke. On BE 31 28, henburX has the correct še
cluster of reverse cunei, but it has the incorrect two vertical strokes.
means “enemy/adversary”. It occurs in the sentence, “The lord opens his mouth
and swears two oaths to his adversary.” This sentence appears word-for-word on BE
31,28 (line o9) and Tablet #36 (line r9). On BE 31,28 there is a
slight difference. A small vertical mark is added to gaba. It is a very minor
difference, but it's enough to change the definition of the sign. With the
added mark, gaba becomes isin, meaning “stalk”. Stalk doesn't make any sense
in the sentence, making it confusing for the reader. Plus, it also “hides” the
enemy (gaba-ri). In a way, the enemy disappears completely behind that one
single stalk. Now there is no enemy in the sentence, only a stalk. Without an
enemy in this sentence, there is no conflict. Without a conflict, the overall
context of the tablet becomes difficult to discern, making it harder to
translate the tablet. When I was trying to translate Tablet #36, a big
breakthrough occurred when I realized there was a conflict in the story, so I
was able to correctly interpret the signs by using this context. Fortunately, I
was able to easily read the sentence on BE 31,28 because I already read it on
Tablet #36 where it is written correctly. Otherwise it would have been a
struggle to decipher the sentence on BE 31,28 if I was reading it for the first
time. On this tablet, the conflict is obscured by the simple addition of one
The scribe of BE 31,28 makes extensive use of
this technique. He arbitrarily adds or deletes a mark on a sign to change its
meaning. Sometimes he adds a mark (gaba in line o12 becomes isin, and še in
line r9 becomes mu). Sometimes he omits a mark (zu in line o13 becomes ba, and
zuh in line r6 becomes saĝ).
These are all signs that are written correctly elsewhere on the tablet, so they
are not scribal errors. Their purpose is to obscure the meaning of the text. Their true meaning can be discerned by the context of the sentences in
which they appear. As previously mentioned, context is everything.
3. Scribal Wordplay:
of the methods that the scribes obscured the meaning of the texts was to use
signs in ways for which they were never intended. For example, lu normally
means “to be/make abundant”, but on Tablet #36 it means “to make fat” as seen
in line r5. It's also used this way on BE 31,28. Mu-lu, the name of The
Great Fatted Donkey, means “man-abundant” – abundant in size and possessions,
meaning “fat and rich”. Like Lu-mah and Su-ba, it is a name that describes the
character’s role in the story while also hiding his identity.
similar example of this kind of wordplay occurs in line r14. Du8 normally means
“to amass”, but the scribe uses it to mean “to grow fat”. Lu-mah’s fatness is a
symbol of his greed.
i = 5
first sign on the left is i, likewise for the second sign. It is a commonly
used sign, but it is not a number, it's a word, one that has no meaning that
fits into the context of the three sentences where it appears. That's because
the scribe uses it to represent the number five.
5(aš) which is written
horizontally (unlike the vertical diš format shown below) always uses a 3-2
combination, as seen in the third sign. On Tablet #36, the scribe uses a 2-2-1
combination to represent the number 5. In a line of text, the sign would
naturally be interpreted as i, which is meaningless in the context of the sentence,
causing some confusion, which helps to obscure the context of the tablet. On
the other hand, the "five" interpretation of the sign fits in all
three sentences where it appears: field 5, pasture 5, and 5 big bowls.
4(diš), ĝar, and 4(diš)
the left, the number 4 is written in the vertical format, unlike the 5(aš) horizontal
format shown above. In the middle is a sign that appears in line r11 on Tablet
#36. It looks like 4(diš), but
it is actually the word ĝar, meaning “to place”. The sign for ĝar is often
written this way. The sign on the right occurs in line r14. On a literary
tablet which thus far has no numbers (the number 5 had previously been
disguised as i), it would be logical to again read this sign as the word ĝar,
but it is actually 4(diš). The
scribe of Tablet #36 arbitrarily switches the number formats to keep the reader
off balance. He puns with numbers for the same reason that he puns with words,
to obscure the meaning of the text.
4. Emesal Dialect:
method employed by the scribes to obscure the meaning of the text is the heavy
use of the Emesal dialect. As shown in the previous discussion of sipad and
nu-nus, Emesal words are the uncommon variations of common Sumerian words. One example
is umun on BE 31,28, line o4. Umun (U) is substituted for en, the common sign
for “lord”. The ePSD has umun defined as the Emesal sign for en, and it has
1,631 citations for en, but there are no citations for umun, which shows how
rare it really is. On the other hand, the ePSD has 19 other definitions for U
that are more likely choices than umun. The scribe disguises the lord (en) with
umun at the beginning of the tablet where the reader is looking for the context
of the story. The scribe later uses en at the end of the story (line r10), but
by then the reader is totally confused because he does not know the context. Of
course, the reader can eventually figure out the Emesal words, but at the
beginning they impede the reader’s understanding of the text.
5. Double Rulings:
Tablet #36 (reverse) showing three double rulings.
scribe of Tablet #36 uses “double rulings” to disguise the nature of the
tablet. A double ruling is two lines drawn between sentences instead of just
one. The lines denote a division between paragraphs. The scribe uses five
double rulings on the tablet. They do not delineate any major divisions in the
story, so there must be another reason for them. Double rulings are often used
to separate unrelated items of text; for example, a collection of proverbs. The
double rulings on Tablet #36 would trick the reader into believing there are
five different segments rather than a single cohesive story. Double ruling are
also used extensively on administrative tablets. This is probably one of the
reasons why Tablet #36 was originally classified as Administrative rather than
Literature (I also thought it was an administrative tablet when I first saw
it). The scribe fooled everyone into thinking Tablet #36 was a boring clerical
tablet that no one would want to read, and not a literary tablet (and political
satire) that could pique someone’s interest.
previously mentioned, I spent months trying to decipher Tablet #36 until I
realized the scribe was trying to trick me by disguising the satirical nature
of the tablet. Since many of the same trick signs are also used on BE 31,28 and
SEM 114, and both tablets have the same hidden context of a political satire, the translation
of these tablets was relatively easy for me. That's because I was no longer fooled by the scribal tricks. I read the tablets differently, I did not read them too literally, as the Sumerologists had done, because I knew the scribes were deliberately trying to mislead the readers.
I am absolutely convinced that somewhere out there is a tablet about The Great Fatted Goat, to complement the stories of The Great Fatted Bull and The Great Fatted Jackass. That would be an interesting story because it would be very sexual. I suggest the most interesting tablets are the ones where the scribes felt compelled to hide the secret meanings because the stories were too political, or too sexual, or both.
would suggest there many tablets that are currently unpublished, or
untranslatable, or “incomprehensible”, that are actually readable if you are not fooled by scribal tricks.