Gold rosette. Most of the artifacts displayed on this page are from the Royal Tombs of Ur.
A cuneiform tablet is not a great rarity, more than half a million are known to exist. About 97% of the tablets are classified as Administrative (receipts, ledgers, inventories, etc.; the Sumerians invented formal accounting). These tablets are recognizable by the numbers at the beginning of the lines. They usually deal with mundane matters such as the amount of grain rations issued to workers or the number of sheep and goats donated to a temple. The tablets are interesting, even beautiful, in their own right; but there's a certain sameness to all of them, and they give little insight into the lives of our ancient ancestors.
Tablet #36 was originally classified as "Administrative", but on closer examination, the first thing noticeable about the tablet is: "no numbers". It's not just another commodities list. It is one of the 3% of tablets that can be classified as "Literature" (letters, poems, proverbs, history, mythology, etc.). This kind of tablet is considered to be far more valuable than the administrative tablets because it gives us a better understanding of ancient life and culture. It is the words of the Sumerians themselves, telling us what they thought about the world they lived in, when writing and civilization were first invented.
Three percent of five-hundred-thousand is still a lot of tablets. Of the literature tablets, this one is the best. No other tablet better exemplifies the dynamics of the written language when it first became literature, when it ceased to be just an accounting tool and it became the recorded voice of human experience. No other tablet has a better story, or a story that is better told (as with any great writing, it's not just the story that matters, but how it is told; many people have written about War and Peace, but very few of them could make it into a masterpiece, as did Tolstoy). This tablet is historically important because it is the world's first comedy, the world's first political satire, and the world's first murder mystery. I believe it's the most important single tablet in the world. It is certainly the coolest tablet ever written.
Part of a lid to a small box.
A friend of mine recently asked me why I consider this tablet to be such a masterpiece. He pointed out that the composition is rather brief; and the writing to him, seemed "really good", but not necessarily "great".
I will start out by saying that I think any Sumerian writing is a masterpiece of literature, given the difficulties of writing the language. The Great Fatted Bull was written in a language that was ten times more difficult than any language in the world today. It was most like ancient Chinese, with the same complex signs, but without the 3,000 years of development that is modern Chinese. I won't bore you with the details (see the Transliteration) but what the scribe does at the sign level is truly amazing. It's like magic. The scribe encodes Lu-mah and Su‑ba so they are actually named for their characters and yet their identities are concealed. He reduces the language down to its barest essentials, yet he gets the maximum meaning, depth, subtlety, and humor from every sign. He puts two of the same sign next to each other, and then gives them different meanings. He fills up both sides of a tablet in "plain Sumerian", but makes it unreadable until one single sign is understood. It's brilliant. There's no other way to put it, it's absolutely brilliant. This is a scribe who invents the language as he goes along. There is no other Sumerian writer like him. He is in a league of his own.
As for the brevity of the composition: it's a poem, not prose. When the language and meaning of prose become this highly concentrated, then the prose becomes poetry. Poetry is the distilled essence of a longer story; it doesn't require the added details that are necessary for an extended narrative. As a narrative, the story may be rather brief, but as a poem it is long enough. Not that there is any scarcity of content. There's "a lot going on" in this story. There's a war, the stealing of crops, the theft of the land and the enslavement of its people. There's a victory parade, a speech, some palace intrigue, a whipping, two throttlings, a feast, a coup d’état, one banishment, a love story, a murder mystery, and more; all of this on one small tablet. It's War and Peace in tablet form. It could almost be a mini-series.
If a modern reader thinks the writing on this tablet is unexceptional, it's because the writing seems so modern. Modern readers in 2000 A.D. see this kind of writing every day in the media. Readers have come to expect an "unexpected" twist in the plot. They are no longer very surprised by a "surprise ending". Today a fast-paced comedy/drama with an intricate plot is taken for granted. In 2000 B.C, it was all brand new. In the Introduction, I say the scribe singlehandedly invented modern literature. The quick pacing, elaborate plot, humor, dialogue, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc., makes this tablet the most modern of ancient literature.
The gold helmet of a warrior king.
The Sumerians are the ones who actually invented literature, sometime around 2600 BC. A sampling of Sumerian literature can be found on the ETCSL. Most modern readers will find Sumerian literature to be not entirely to their liking. Sumerian literature can be quite pompous and verbose by modern standards, and the language and syntax often sound rough and unpolished in the English translation. (This is actually the reason why I like Sumerian literature, it sounds like ancient literature.) Tablet #36 is the first story to be told in the everyday language of the people rather than the stilted and methodic style of formal writing. It doesn't take long to discover that there's nothing like The Great Fatted Bull on the ETCSL or anywhere else in Sumerian literature. One of the reasons I call this tablet a masterpiece is because it's considerably better than anything else written in the Sumerian language.
The Sumerians had fables and proverbs in which animals are given human speech and human characteristics. For example, in the Debate Between Bird and Fish, the animals talk and they have human emotions. The bird, for instance, fights and argues; but he's just bird, doing bird-like things (scattering his droppings all around). He is not some polymorphous quasi bird/man who morphs from one to the other and back again, who is also a lord and a king, and who symbolizes some abstract human concept such as tyranny or greed. In all of Sumerian literature, there's no one like Lu-mah, the bull who would be king.
Some Sumerian literature can be very "rambling"; it sometimes has difficulty getting to the point. It can also be very repetitious, sometimes to absurd lengths; see Gilgamesh and Huwawa, lines 57-66. It is believed that Sumerian literature had a musical element, and that the repetitions served as a melodic refrain. It nonetheless makes it tedious to read. (One has to sympathize with scribes who had to convert this wordiness into hundreds of complicated symbols and then write them on a rapidly drying clay tablet.) For a given amount of writing, there's usually not a lot happening in most Sumerian stories. But in The Great Fatted Bull, things happen boom boom boom, one thing after another. There's not a wasted word on this tablet. Every sentence counts; every word tells. This scribe has already told a great story before most writers have concluded their opening remarks.
Silver bull-headed lyre.
Most Sumerian literature is "straight-line narrative", the straightforward telling of a story from beginning to end. There are no unexpected twists in the plot, of the kind that makes someone think, "Wow, I didn't see that one coming." In most Sumerian stories, everyone is who they seem to be. The good guys are the good guys, the bad guys are the bad guys. Things turns out pretty much as expected and there are no surprise developments. In the story ofThe Great Fatted Bull, every other line is a surprise development, and nobody is who they pretend to be.
The Sumerians were a humorous people, but much of their humor has been lost in translation. We no longer understand the Sumerian social context that would make a remark funny in the first place (proverb: In the seventh month he did not slaughter a pig. In the sixth month he did not put on a new turban (??)). Despite the humor of the Sumerian people, there are no Sumerian comedies, at least none that have survived the millennia. There are occasional flashes of humor in other Sumerian tales, but no other Sumerian story is comedic all the way through the text. No other story has the same note of sustained irony, the same sophisticated use of satire. The humor ofthis ancient story has withstood the test of time. It is just as funny today as it was 4,000 years ago.
Not only does The Great Fatted Bull compare favorably with Sumerian literature, it also compares favorably with the rest of the world's great literature. This is the other reason why I consider it to be such a masterpiece. Even discounting the clever encoding of the tablet, and looking only at the story itself, I believe that word for word, line for line, pound for pound, The Great Fatted Bull is the best thing ever written. Show me 40 lines of Homer that's as good as this. I call this website Sumerian Shakespeare (to denote any of the world's great writers), but show me 40 lines of Shakespeare that's better written. For that matter, show me anything written today that's better than The Great Fatted Bull.
The Ram in the Thicket.
If you still don't believe that The Great Fatted Bull is a masterpiece, then try this: write a better one. Modern English is ten times easier to write than ancient Sumerian, so it shouldn't be too difficult to do. Here's the criteria (there are so many items, it easier just list them).
In the same amount of writing (less than two hand-written pages) write a fast-paced comedy/drama, that can be read at a variety of different levels, which perfectly encapsulates the world you live in (not just your life, the world; it's easy to write about your life). Notice how the story of The Great Fatted Bull is distinctly Sumerian, yet it has a more universal meaning. It could apply to any prehistoric tribal village or to any modern nation.
The story should have "thematic unity", where all of the details support it's central theme or idea (The Great Fatted Bull has two central themes: bull and king). Within this overall thematic unity there should also be several other minor themes: like how Field #5 becomes Pasture #5, which end up in five big bowls and later becomes Field #4, or the often-repeated theme that Lu-mah's fatness is a symbol of his greed, or grain as a symbol of wealth, or the gift theme, etc. The Great Fatted Bull is a story that has "wheels within wheels". There are more than seventeen minor themes in this story, in less than 40 lines! When I first started making the chart for the minor themes of the story, I had 15 highlighter colors. I soon ran out of colors and resorted to using different text colors within the highlighted areas. After a while, I just gave up, even though I hadn't marked all of the minor themes, and none of the major ones (man bull, king, satire, murder mystery, etc). I realized that all of the lines would be highlighted multiple times.
The story should have a cast of complicated and memorable characters. Lu-mah is a man and a bull, a lord and a king, a villain and a fool. Su-ba is just a simple shepherd (who is really a king). He's strong and brave, noble and heroic, and a would-be assassin. The wife is a mysterious and sympathetic figure, hidden in the background, who is also a conspirator and probably an adulteress. And the mother. . .
For good measure, add a mystery to the story that the readers can solve for themselves using the clues that you have provided.
Statuette of a not-so-fatted bull.
The story should be highly complex and tightly structured, and so well-organized you can foreshadow (telegraph your intentions in advance) several times in the story. This is always a sign of a writer who's "got a plan", who knows where he's going in a story, and who's not just writing things down as they occur to him. The Great Fatted Bull is the most highly structured story in all of literature. It's as structured as a diamond. Everything in the story fits exactly with everything else.
In your story, throw in a few surprise developments, just to keep things interesting. For added measure, throw in a ninja.
Fill the story with vivid imagery ("like a storm arose the angry lord") and shaded nuances ("I'll sell you Pasture #5"). Fill it with hyperbole ("mountain of grain") followed by understatement ("twig of grain"). Then add some puns and some other kinds of wordplay.
Most importantly, it should be "all narrative", where character, action, and dialogue convey the overall symbolic meaning of the story (and not just a lot of speechifying about "the ways of the world"; anyone can do that.) This scribe was the first proponent of the modern "Show"me, don't tell me" school of literature. Don't tell me, "He is a bad king." Show me by his words and his actions that he is a bad king.
Make it unlike anything else ever written, then make it so it's just as meaningful and funny 4,000 years in the future as it is today. Then somehow encode it so it's true meaning can only be revealed with a "key" that is hidden in the text.
Any modern writer with access to all of the world's great literature, ancient and modern, who has read hundreds of books and seen thousands of movies and TV shows, and who has heard a story told million different ways, would have difficulty writing something better than The Great Fatted Bull. As for me, personally, I know that I couldn't write a better story, even if my life depended on it.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Tablet #36 is the Mona Lisa of tablets. Not only in the sense that it was a mystery for so long, and that it continues to be a mystery to this day (because the ending of the story is missing), but mostly because both works represent the very best that can be produced in their given art forms. Tablet #36 is to literature what the Mona Lisa is to painting.
The scribe who wrote this tablet is truly the world's first "literary" writer. His skill and his love of the language demonstrates that he is what could be called a "writer's writer"; the kind of writer that other writers look to as a master of their craft. All modern writers today are his descendants. Not only did he invent modern literature when he wrote this tablet, but he did it at considerable risk to himself because of the volatile contents of the story (see The Scribe). He could've been flogged like the shepherd brother for saying the exact same thing (lines r1 through r3) or perhaps even killed. It took real courage for him to write this tablet. I think he should get the Nobel Prize for Literature. I know, the Nobel Prize isn't awarded posthumously (and in this case it would be "posthumous" by a long shot) but I think he deserves some sort of honorary mention.
In conclusion, let's take another look at a line which I have already covered in some detail in the Annotations. It is line r6: "A man, clothed in darkness, climbs in through the window. The slave women rush to his side." Any other scribe, and any modern writer, would have written, "A man, clothed in darkness, climbs in through the window. It's the shepherd brother! The slave women rush to his side!"; and the story would have been "good enough". Instead, the scribe doesn't tell us who the man is. He thus creates a mood of mystery and suspense, that directly involves the reader in solving the riddle of the man's identity, and he leaves only one clue that is counter-intuitive (women rushing toward a man climbing in through a window at night). It would be an incredibly sophisticated thing for a modern writer to do; the fact that it was done 4,000 years ago is simply astounding. That's the difference between good writing and great writing.
The Great Fatted Bull is truly a masterpiece. Considering the recent events in Iraq, the story has the same universal relevance today that it had in 2000 B.C. It is like a time capsule that has been locked and buried, and then reopened 4,000 years later, only to reveal that the new world is much the same as the old world. It's a poem about everything. It's about life, history, and the ways of the world. It is a parable for all of mankind. Tablet #36 is only clay, but it sparkles like a diamond, with the wit and wisdom of the ages, and the eternal brilliance of the human spirit.