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.
For the next hundred years many prominent Sumerologists also tried their hand
at translating this tablet, but to no avail. Individual words and phrases
hinted at many possible meanings for the story, but the tablet could not be read.
my translation of BE 28. It is not a Dialogue between Two Women. It is actually
the story of the young prince Mulu, otherwise known as The Great Fatted Donkey. It is similar to Tablet #36, the
story of The Great Fatted Bull. Both stories are political satires about great
lords and kings. Since mocking the nobility was a dangerous thing to do, both
tablets were deliberately encoded to keep their meaning secret. Puns, “trick signs”,
and clever wordplay were used to disguise the meaning of the tablets, making them
almost impossible to decipher. That is why modern Sumerologists had so much
difficulty reading them. Not even another Sumerian scribe could easily read these tablets.
the same events occur in both stories, and many of the sentences in The Great
Fatted Donkey seem to have been lifted word-for-word from The Great Fatted Bull.
In addition, both stories include murder mysteries that the readers must solve
for themselves using the clues provided.
be wondering why I keep referring to the Fatted Donkey when this tablet is
entitled The Princess Wife. That's because the donkey prince is the central character in
the story, but in my opinion, his wife is the star of the show.
story of The Great Fatted Bull, the wife is deliberately hidden in the
background to enshroud her in mystery and to conceal her part in the conspiracy. She doesn't even have a speaking role; she doesn't say one word throughout the entire narrative. I doubt many readers would realize the wife’s importance to the story
unless I pointed it out to them.
story of The Great Fatted Donkey, the wife is front and center. She’s the one
doing all of the talking and making all of the decisions. She’s clearly the boss,
even in the presence of her husband (the prince) and his father (the lord).
Apparently there were several versions of The Great Fatted Donkey making the rounds in scribal circles (see my translation of The Great Fatted Jackass). BE 28 is a later variation of the original donkey theme, but unlike the others, it is written from the woman's point of view. While I was translating this tablet, even though I didn't know all of the signs, I kept thinking, "That's a woman talking." It was like hearing a faint voice in the distance. I couldn't hear what was being said, just a few words here and there, but I knew it was a woman's voice.
these and other reasons, I believe that BE 28 was written by a woman. Female scribes
were a rarity in ancient Mesopotamia, but many noblewomen were taught to read
and write so they could be the high priestesses of important temples (a
high priestess was always a noblewoman). A notable example was Urukagina’s wife
Sasa, who was the high priestess and chief administrator for the temple of the goddess
Ba-u. Another example is Enheduana, the daughter of Sargon the Great. She was the first female author in history. Perhaps the author of
The Princess Wife was herself a princess, and hence her affinity for the part. In
this regard she would be just like Sasa or Enheduana – a woman, a scribe, an
author, a princess and a priestess.
It may be too much to hope that the author was a princess, and it isn't really necessary. Perhaps she was merely the daughter of a wealthy merchant (only rich
people and the nobility could afford scribal school because it was very
expensive). She may have become a scribe to help take care of her father's
business in a family that had no son.
Nor is it necessary that the woman who wrote this story even knew how to read and write. Even if the scribe who actually wrote the signs on the tablet was a man, like most
scribes, the author of the story was certainly a woman, possibly his wife. She's the one who came up with the storyline. Here’s
how I see it happening: A scribe is
reading the story of The Great Fatted Donkey to his wife. It has the usual
ending, like that of The Great Fatted Bull, where the women are hidden in the
background. They both have a good laugh about the story. Then the wife says, “That’s
funny . . . but you know what would be even funnier? At the end, the wife of
the prince starts talking. She tells him . . . Are you writing this down?”
In effect, the husband was just taking dictation. It was likewise for me while I was translating this tablet. I was merely transcribing it the way she wanted me to write it, from the woman's point of view.
This tablet is all about the women.
You've heard the story of The Princess Bride, now read the story of The Princess Wife.