The Great Fatted Bull
Tablet #36
Sumerian Images
Sumerian History
The Royal Tombs of Ur
The Standard of Ur:  War
The Standard of Ur:  King
The "Standard" of Ur?
Vulture Stele Translation
Sumerian War Chariots
War Chariot Deconstructed
Gudea Translation
The Face of Gudea
The Face of Ur-Ningirsu
The Face of Lugal-agrig-zi
Ur-Namma Translation
The Face of Ur-Namma
Face of Ur-Namma, part II
I am Ur-Namma
The Face of Shulgi
Who Were the Sumerians?
Other Sumerian Kings
The Princess Wife
The Great Fatted Jackass
Sargon's Victory Stele
Helmet: the King of Kish
The Standard of Mari?
The Invention of Writing
Adventures in Cuneiform
The Sumerian Scribe
A Masterpiece
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The great ziggurat at Ur.


Annotations for Tablet #36 in the Library of Congress Cuneiform Collection

by:  Jerald Jack Starr


Obverse:          [x-] = Missing or damaged text          {… } = explanatory comments    

         [Unknown number of lines missing]

 1.     You  [x-x…]

 2.     Fate  [x-x…]

 3.     Lu-mah, the abundant lord, is a bull  [x-x…]

         The Sumerian word for "king" is Lu-gal, which literally means "man-great". The subject of this story is Lu-mah, which likewise means "man-great". But instead of writing Lu-mah, the scribe writes Lu-mah(2), which is pronounced the same, but written with a different sign, making it nonsensical within the context of the sentence. This was meant to disguise the meaning of the story. To openly mock a great king was a dangerous thing to do. The scribe could never "publish" this tablet, or even quote it aloud at his local tavern. To ridicule
a powerful ruler could have fatal consequences, as the story itself will soon reveal. 

         Lu-mah is the name of the Great Fatted Bull. He is named according to his character,  like "John Bull" or "Mr. King". This may be the earliest known use of this literary convention.

         Decoding Lu-mah is described in greater detail in the Transliteration.

 4.     May the fatted bull the abundant gift of fatherhood  [x-x…]

 5.     Great Fatso is treasured. To the Great Fatso the workmen send  [x-x…]

         More word-play:  Gal-niga, “great-fattened”, is an adjective used to describe livestock.  The scribe places it at the beginning of the sentence, where the subject/noun should be, making it into a title for the bull. It is translated as "Great Fatso” because it's clearly meant to be derogatory (and it's how the scribe would say it if he translated it into modern English, as explained in line o5 of the Transliteration). "Great Fatso" is Lu-mah's lordly address, like “Your Highness” and “Your Majesty”.  

         Ironically, Sumerians usually regarded a bull as the symbol of strength and heroism.

 6.     He bellows:  

         To the bull, "Bring to me the gifts of food!"

         To the bull, "Now send to me my lady!" 

         Voice + bull + repetitive processing (to the bull. . . to the bull. . . ) is a literary device used to evoke the bellowing of a bull. The italics, needless to say, are my own.

         The word šagal means both “food” and “fodder”, in keeping with the man/bull theme. 

        The Lord Lu-mah is calling for his wife – the sign used is nin, “a titled Lady”, and not munus, “a woman” – presumably for a conjugal visit (he's a bull, after all).

 7.     Lu-mah declares, "My abundant fate is like the Majestic Shrine.

         "It's accumulating up to the heavens!"

         Notice how the word "abundant" is used repeatedly in the opening lines of the story to descibe everything about Lu-mah. It's a wry commentary on his waistline. Even his name (lu2 = man, or "he who"; mah = large) could be interpreted as "fat man", or "he who is fat". 

         This sentence may be a reference to Esh-Mah (shrine-great), otherwise known as the Majestic Shrine, in the city of Nippur. It's impossible to tell if the sentence is just a metaphor or if a shrine is actually being built by the workers mentioned in line o5. In either case, the sentence evokes the image of a great ziggurat to comment on Lu-mah's ever-increasing amplitude. 

         The sentence is spoken by Lu-mah with unintentional irony. It is, of course, the Great Abundant Bull himself who is accumulating (in size and possessions) up to the heavens. Throughout the story, the scribe uses verbs that mean "to accumulate" as a way of saying "to grow fat" (see Transliteration, line r5). "Accumulating" also suggests the acquisitiveness of a great lord, as soon will be shown, and the shrine represents it as his god-given right, the divine right of a king. The monumental shrine and Lu-mah's great fatness are symbols of his colossal greed.

 8.     He goes into the village, to make the rounds.

         He wanders through the marketplace, feeling most important.

         He passes by Grain Field #5 . . .

         He enters Grain Field #5, to fill his great bull hands!
         Field #5 refers to a person's assigned parcel of land. The Sumerians allocated fields of farmland to local officials for their upkeep. Grain rations were also issued as a kind of salary. The henbur grain mentioned in the next line refers to the edible parts of a reed or rush. 

         Grain Field #5 is one of the many small fields of allotted farmland that surrounded a Sumerian village. The setting is a microcosm of Sumer itself. The story is Sumerian history. The Fatted Bull is a local lord who thinks he is a king.

 9.     “I proclaim this field a gift!  And this henbur grain I'll take!  

          "With many different wives for my virile self.

10.     "And so with my labor, I'll support myself and my mother!”

         His mother?  During this kingly proclamation, he's actually talking about his mother?

         Apparently Lu-mah is still a young bull (man) and he's something of a mama's boy, but there's another reason why he mentions his mother: 

        He's doing it for his mother, so it's for a good cause. Tyrants always give a lofty reason for their actions. This is the first of two propaganda ploys used by the Great Fatted Bull:  The Lord Lu-mah isn't doing this for his own selfish reasons. He is only doing it because he is the sole support of his sainted mother. Who could fault him for that? A king will always proclaim that his war of conquest is for a noble cause.

        On a different note, given the context of the many "wives" in the previous sentence, just what exactly does Lu-mah mean by his "labor"? 

11.     [x-x…]  He gets into a huge argument with everyone. 

         Not surprisingly, he gets into a dispute with the owners of the field.

12.     [x-x…] . . . goes the angry lord.

13.     [Lord (?)] [x-x] [something, something]

         The tablet is heavily damaged in this area.

14.    Then the Lord Fatso returns to his village. He proclaims,

         “I'm the man who yoked the bandits!”

         Propaganda is the art of calling your neighbor a thief to justify stealing his land.
In modern parlance this would be called "blaming the victim".

         Sumerian kings routinely boasted that they placed a yoke on the necks of thieves, criminals, and foreign enemies. 

         Lu-mah tells us he has yoked the bandits, so we are expecting to see many prisoners that are tough "desperados" – but in the next sentence, who are the first people we see? 

15.     He drags the slave women and their captive kinsmen into his fortress.

        This is the Great Fatted Bull's victory procession where the king parades his captives through the streets in neck stocks. For now, in his own mind at least, Lu-mah is truly a king.

         This one family represents all of the families who throughout history have suffered a similar fate in war.

         The Sumerians, when they weren't fighting against foreign invasions, often fought
each other. Sumerian history is filled with countless civil wars between the city-states when local lords battled for regional supremacy. During one of the wars, when many lords were fighting, a bewildered historian asked, "Who was king?  Who was not king?" 

        The Sumerian people seem to have accepted constant warfare as a matter of routine.
This can be seen in the "year names" of the Sumerian calendar. Each calendar year was not known by a number, but was named for an important event (e.g., "the year Amar-Suen  became king"). All too often, it was "the year City X was destroyed", or "the year City Y was destroyed". Sometimes it was "the year cities X and Y were destroyed". These are enemy cities, the Sumerian towns that were destroyed in retaliation were seldom mentioned in the official year names. During the reign of King Shulgi, one year was named: "Year that the enemy cities of Simurrum and Lullubum were destroyed for the ninth time". This was the world that the scribe lived in, where he and his family might be murdered or enslaved when yet another Fatted Bull (foreign or domestic) came roaring into town.

16.     Lu-mah commands, “I order the father to trample his fields into mash!”

         Grain mash:  used to make fodder and beer.  

         “Our father’s fields” was an expression sometimes used to mean “homeland”.  The symbolism of the passage is clear. It's a lot like the Sumerian proverb, "The warring brothers destroyed their father's house."

         "Su-ba" is the name of the hero of this story. Like "Lu-mah", the name of the Great Fatted Bull, it is written as a pun at the sign level. Also like Lu-mah, it's a name that describes the character's role in the story while at the same time hiding his identity. Su-ba means "shepherd". For notes on decoding his name, see line o18 in the Transliteration.

         {He says to Su-ba, the "shepherd brother", son of the unfortunate father, and brother of the slave women: }

17.     “I’ll sell you Pasture #5.  Give me all your heaps of grain."

         "Pasture #5":  After the father has been humiliated by having to trample his own crops into mash, his land will be stripped of all its grain to make fodder for the Great Fatted Bull. The shorn fields of the father will thus become a "pasture”, fit only for the grazing of sheep. An added irony is the well-known fact that sheep are able to graze on barren pastures that cannot support other kinds of livestock.

         The Great Fatted King is offering to "sell" to the son the land that has been stolen from the father. His asking price is all the heaps of grain. The shepherd's meager grain reserves (surplus grain that's stored for use during winter and for emergencies like drought and famine) will later be tossed onto Lu-mah's great big Mountain of Grain.

         There are many different levels of irony in the first sentence. It shows that Lu-mah has a sense of humor, albeit a sarcastic one. Lu-mah is the world's first "snide villain", the type that has become so popular in modern movies. Notice how Lu-mah abruptly changes his tone in the above two sentences. At first he is humorous, but then he becomes menacing.

18.     [x-x…]-like, the shepherd brother.

         The shepherd is always "the good guy” in any Sumerian story.

Sumerian soldiers.  From "The Vulture Stele" of King Eannatum.

Reverse:          [x-] = Missing or damaged text          {… } = explanatory comments

         {The shepherd brother speaks: }

 1.     “I will not bow before the man who seizes everything but wisdom.

         "He is not a strong man. 

         Ki. . . su-ub:  to prostrate oneself, literally "to rub the nose on the ground". This is the ritualized bow that is performed in the presence of a god. Lu-mah wants to be worshiped as a deified king, a living god.

         “He is not a strong man” foreshadows the last line.  In this sentence, and in the next, Su-ba repeatedly reminds The Great Fatted Lord that a king is not a god, but just a man.

 2.     "Earth and the heavens feel troubled

         when this man is bellowing for plunder!”

         This sentence, like line o8, emphasizes Lu-mah's dual nature of man and bull. Sometimes Lu-mah is a man, sometimes he's a bull. Sometimes he is both at once. Lu-mah is a man who bellows, he is a bull with hands.

         In ancient Sumer a king was traditionally portrayed as a good shepherd. He is depicted wearing a shepherd’s woolen hat rather than the crown of a king or the helmet of a warrior. (Not just kings, but even the gods themselves were likened unto shepherds. There is not a bad word said about shepherds in all of Sumerian literature). An ancient Sumerian would instantly recognize the shepherd as The Good King of the story. Tablet #36 is really all about the Good King vs. the Bad King.

 3.     Beating ribs, beating back and shoulders, like a storm arose the angry lord!

         A Sumerian, unaccustomed to this kind of plot twist, would have been shocked by this unexpected turn of events. The good king is introduced, he makes a short speech, and then he is summarily beaten to death by the bad king. After that, he is never heard from again. This should be the part of the story where the hero prevails. But the scribe doesn’t really say the shepherd brother is dead. The wording is deliberately ambiguous. It leaves some doubt as to the fate of the shepherd brother, and thus foreshadows what comes later. 
         This is not a fight or a duel. The shepherd brother is a bound prisoner who is yoked in a neck stock. “Beating back and shoulders” means that a whip was used.

         The lord’s violent reaction to the shepherd brother’s speech shows why the scribe encoded this tablet so it couldn't be read. Anyone who dared to criticize a great lord would suffer the same fate as the shepherd brother. The scribe risked his life to tell this story.

         {The scene shifts to Lord Fatso’s victory feast.}

 4.     He eats his food like a pig.  The Pig divides the fodder into five big bowls,

         and with his hand, he crams it into his mouth and chokes it down.

        The five big bowls hold the grain of Field #5 that the father trampled into mash (fodder).

        It's called "poetic justice". The Great Fatted Bull is choking on his ill-gotten gains, although it doesn't seem to stop him from eating: 

 5.     "My flanks grow fat!" he bellows, while eating all the food his hands can grab.

         Again with Lu-mah's grasping hands. This is one of seventeen minor themes in the story of The Great Fatted Bull, in less than 40 lines (!) not to mention the numerous major themes (man, bull, king, satire, murder mystery, etc.). See "A Masterpiece". 

 6.     A man, clothed in darkness, climbs in through the window.

         The slave women rush to his side.

         It's at first surprising to see women rushing toward a man climbing in through a window at night. Although confusing at first, this minor detail is the best clue we have for the identity of the intruder. It forces us to recognize for ourselves the identity of the man emerging from the window. Although the intruder is never named, it is of course the shepherd brother. This is nonetheless a surprise development. When last seen, the shepherd brother was yoked, bound, and beaten to within an inch of his life. It's as if he's risen from the dead.

         So how did Su-ba escape from captivity?

         What's most telling is what's not said. The sisters do not express alarm when they see a man climbing through the window, nor do they show surprise when they realize it's their shepherd brother. They do not give thanks to find him so miraculously free and alive, nor do they rejoice in their own deliverance. They simply go to his side without a word, as if on cue.
It’s as if they knew he was coming, which suggests they also somehow treated his wounds and aided in his escape.

        They are in on the plot. The stage is set for the coup d’état.

 7.    The man says, “Here’s a gift to anoint the bull! To make him permanently bellow

         with great burning indigestion!”

         It’s a line straight out of Hollywood.

         The gift is for Lu-mah's coronation, "anointment", as a king.

 8.     Nose to nose, the lord and the "man not his servant"   {rebel, enemy}

         throttle each other.
This line absolves the butler of any suspicion of wrongdoing.

 9.     The lord opens his mouth and swears two oaths to his adversary.

10.     He gasps, “Feed-grain . . . to abandon!  This great eating to diminish!"

         Had he not made these two promises, he would have been strangled to death.

11.     His mother says, “The Fatted Lord is not a lordly one.

          "As for me, I know that I don't place great trust in him.”

         His own mother says that. 

         It's an odd thing for a mother to say about her only son, just moments after his attempted murder. No cries of shock and alarm? No anguished cries of "My son! My son!  Are you okay?" No cries of outrage for this terrible crime?  None of this. Nor does she act the least bit surprised by this sudden turn of events. Instead, she just calmly announces that she doesn't really trust Lord Fatso. She's acting more like a conspirator than a mother, and it sounds as if she's speaking for all of the conspirators. Could it be that Lu-mah's own mother, his sainted mother, is in on the plot against him?

         Of course she is. After all, a mother knows best. 

         Is everyone against the Great Fatted Bull?

12.     His wife shares his Mountain of Grain with his slave women

          and their slave companions.

         What's this?  The last that was heard of the long suffering Lady Fatted Bull was a brief mention at the beginning of the story when she was being summoned (yet again) by the Great Fatted Lord. Now, suddenly, here she is again, cavorting with the slaves and their "companions"? ... the known conspirators? Come to think of it, she's the one with the most to gain from the attempted murder of Mr. Fatted Bull. She has taken possession of Lu-mah's domains, and her distribution of his "mountain of grain" with such largesse can be construed as some kind of pay off.

         The wife has now moved to the top of the suspect list. This brings up an interesting question: Could Su-ba and his sisters really succeed without the wife as their accomplice?

         Probably not. This is starting to look like an inside job.

        You may, perhaps, think I am reading too much into the story. If so, then consider this:
It's not easy being married to the Lord Lu-mah. He is a greedy, demanding, gluttonous man.
He eats his food like a pig, he has a bull's sexual appetite, and he's violently demonstrated
what happens to people who dare to cross him. His wife is a desperately unhappy woman.
As everybody knows, a miserable wife is always the prime suspect in the attempted murder
of her husband.

         It is easy for a modern reader, unaccustomed to rigid class distinctions, to miss the importance of this clue. A modern reader assumes the wife shared her bounty with the slaves simply because she is a nice lady. But for a Sumerian, this clue is a dead giveaway.
Even if he was confused about what was happening thus far, this would open his eyes.
It must be remembered that the wife is a Lady, with a capital "L", the wife of a great lord. Any proper Sumerian would be shocked to see a noblewoman frolicking with the slaves in this unseemly manner. It just wasn't done. So her behavior would immediately raise suspicions, and eyebrows.

         It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination for a modern reader to likewise suspect that the Great Fatso has just been cuckolded (assuming that human nature has not changed too much in the last 4,000 years). Even if the adultery hasn't already happened, it soon will, because this is more than just a simple murder plot, it is also a love story.

        The scribe doesn't tell us what happened behind the scenes, but he gives a clue that leaves no doubt as to what really occurred: The wife is present when the Great Fatted Bull drags his captives into the fortress. The shepherd brother, the answer to her prayers and the solution to all of her problems, is hauled in before her; a prisoner, like herself. She falls in love with the handsome shepherd when he stands up to Lu-mah and gives his speech about a man being wise and good. She then watches in horror as the shepherd brother is savagely beaten by her cruel husband. Afterwards, she secretly arranges for the shepherd's escape and for the sisters to treat his wounds. Some time later, she makes a clandestine visit. Words are said, plans are made...

         The wife is the mastermind of the operation. She's the one who sets the plot in motion. She's the one who makes things happen. This is the only way to logically explain Su-ba's "miraculous" escape from captivity. After all, she is the only one with the means, the motive, and the opportunity.

         For women, the wife's actions would seem tantamount to a divorce.

         Notice how the scribe still insists on not identifying the "unknown assailant". It must be assumed by the reader that the shepherd and his father are the "companions". Su-ba is referred to as "the man" (climbing through the window), the "man not his servant" (rebel), the adversary, and the companion, but he is never identified by name. This makes Tablet #36 the world's first true murder mystery because the reader must solve the case for himself using the clues provided. 

         As it turns out, Lu-mah's reign as a king did not last through his victory feast.

         The moral of the story seems to be that the Good King (the shepherd brother) and the Good Queen (the wife) live happily ever after.

13.     The fatted bull reaps one single twig of his henbur grain.

         Notice how we quickly go from hyperbole (a mountain of grain) in the last sentence, to understatement in this sentence (a single twig of grain, not even a whole stalk).

         For men, this would also seem like a divorce.

14.     “What? Only one?”  His stomach knows a great hunger.

         Well, he did promise to eat less.

         {Then . . . }

 15.     An unmarried woman offers him a garden,

          with acres and acres of grain
. . .

          Grain Field #4!

          In pasture he grows fat again. 

         The grain fields seem to be some kind of dowry offering. The sentence is a comment on the intermarriage between rich people and the nobility: She has the land, but no royal title
(she is called munus, "woman", and not nin, "Lady"). Lu-mah has the royal title, but no land. A king could often gain through marriage what he could not win by conquest.

         "In pasture" has the same meaning as "out to pasture", with its usual connotations of grazing, retirement, and stud.

16.     The man goes to do his work.  He walks in the pasture, 

          completely satisfied  [x-x]

         Here at the end, things turn out pretty good for Lu-mah.

17.     He converses with the neighbor woman  [x-x]

         Presumably the neighbor woman is from Grain Field #3.

18.     The man is not strong, the woman not virtuous . . . 

         What do you think happens next?

         [Rest of the tablet missing]

The "Peace" side of the Standard of Ur.


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