The Great Fatted Bull
Tablet #36
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The Face of Gudea
The Face of Ur-Ningirsu
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The Face of Ur-Namma
Face of Ur-Namma, part II
I am Ur-Namma
The Face of Shulgi
Who Were the Sumerians?
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The Princess Wife
BE 31,28 Sign List
Sumerian Trick Signs
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A “trick sign” is a sign that's written to deceive. It's designed to make a tablet difficult to read, to hide the secret meaning of the story. Nu-nus is the most important trick sign on BE 31 28, the story of The Princess Wife. In this way, it is much like mahX on Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. Both tablets use many of the same trick signs, but nu-nus appears only on BE 31 28.

nunus:  It means "egg" or "an ovoid bead".

  Nunus, normal (left) and compressed (right).

As two signs stacked on top of each other, it would be difficult to fit nunus within the narrow lines of a tablet, so naturally the scribes found an easier way to write it, as shown above.

            nu-nus               munus    

The word on the left looks like it should be pronounced as nu-nunus, since it is composed of the signs nu and nunus, but it is pronounced simply as nu-nus. 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 as a way to help obscure the meaning of the text. The scribe also uses the sign in a very unusual manner.

nu-nus (normal) and the way it appears on BE 31,28



On line o16, nu-nus is written as nunus. Since it's written at the very beginning of the line,
there’s no pretense about including the nu portion of the sign. It’s a hint that the scribe intends to use the sign this way (without nu) to mean “woman”. This led some modern Sumerologists to translate the sign as nunus, “egg” rather than nu-nus,”woman”. The scribe is using the pronunciation of nunus rather than the literal signs for nu-nus. It's very clever.



Nu-nus is mentioned a second time in line o16. It would be tempting to read this sign as
nu-nus, “woman”, but it’s a trick. Nu is also the Sumerian sign for negation (no, not, without).
In this case, nu-nus means “no woman”. The translation of this phrase is, “… Mulu has
no power, no women, and no virtue.” (See line o16 and note the recurring appearance of the sign nu.)


So, does this sign mean “no woman” like the one above?  Not exactly. Now the negation
applies to the preceding sign, zu, meaning “to know”; i.e., Mulu “knows-not women”.
(See line r5.) The signs could also mean that Mulu "knows-not beads". Both meanings fit perfectly into the context of the sentence and the context of the story, as explained in line r5
of the Transliteration.


Nu-nus occurs again in the very next sentence (r6). Okay, so now we are accustomed to the scribe’s tricks. This sign means “no/not woman”, right?  Wrong. This is the only time on the tablet that the sign is used correctly. In this case, nu-nus means what it’s 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 intention all along. It is a subtle indication that the scribe is trying to confuse the reader. If he 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 nu-nus/nunus to keep the reader off balance.

It's brilliant the way he uses this sign, absolutely brilliant.