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 Shepherd Kings
The Kings of Uruk
War: Umma and Lagash
Enmetena Vase
Enmetena Tablet
Enmetena, not Urukagina
Urukagina Liberty Cones
The Man of Umma
Lugalzagesi Translation
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
Site Map

Gudea. He wears a shepherd's hat, the crown of a Sumerian king.

In China, the emperor lived in the “Forbidden City”. In Japan, the citizens were not allowed to even look at their emperor’s face. In Egypt, the pharaohs were remote godlike beings concerned only with their own immortality. All of these monarchs didn't really care too much for the well-being of their subjects, for the welfare of the common people. The Sumerians had a different concept of kingship. Their rulers were the shepherd kings, the guardians and protectors of their flocks, the people.

Throughout history, throughout the entire world, the chieftain/ruler/king was always a strongman who was able to impose his leadership on others by the sheer force of his strength and will (and his army). So it is extraordinary that the Sumerians at the very dawn of history, even as they began to invent civilization, should develop such a modern, enlightened view of government.

The Sumerians were the first to invent civilization, when most of the world was still living in the Stone Age. They prospered even though they didn't have many natural resources, and they survived even though they were surrounded by enemies.

One has to wonder, why did the Sumerians succeed when others would have failed?

I suggest it's because of the shepherd kings. You cannot understand Sumerian civilization
until you understand the shepherd kings.

The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. He is austere, godlike and forbidding. On his headdress is a coiled cobra. It protects the pharaoh from evil and it symbolizes his right to strike and kill anyone who dares to oppose him. It must have been a daunting experience to stand in front of the pharaoh while staring into the eyes of a menacing reptile.

A Sumerian shepherd king. Compare this benign portrait with that of Akhenaten.

Sipa is the Sumerian word for “shepherd”, but it also means an animal herder of any kind. It can refer to a herder of cattle, horses, and even pigs.

In the context of a king, sipa refers to a herder of sheep. This is indicated by the fact that he wears a fleecy woolen hat and by the fact that he is often portrayed holding a lamb, as shown above (click here to see another example). The shepherd king being the herder of sheep makes the most sense, symbolically speaking, as opposed to a herder of cattle, horses, or pigs. His flock (the people) wouldn't want to be compared to lumbering oxen yoked to a plow, or horses harnessed to a wagon, and they certainly didn't want to be likened unto swine wallowing in filth.

There is a symbiotic relationship between a shepherd and his flock. A shepherd is a herder of sheep, leading them to greener pastures. He tends to the flock, he makes sure the sheep are well fed and he protects them from predators. That is why the sheep willingly obey him. A king is a herder of men. He tends to their many needs, makes sure they have plenty of food, and he protects them from hostile foreign powers. In return they willingly give him their allegiance and their obedience.

sipa lugal, shepherd king.

In hindsight, a shepherd king as the ideal of leadership seems obvious. Originally the Sumerian rulers were the high priests of temples, but as the city-states became stronger and more competitive the leaders became kings who could command large armies. When these warrior kings weren’t battling each other they could also protect the Sumerian cities from foreign invasions. Nonetheless, the Sumerian kings never lost their priestly aura. They were still expected to provide for the well-being of their people on behalf of the gods. So the ideal of a shepherd seems like a natural choice. The concept of shepherd leadership was continued by the Babylonians long after the Sumerian civilization had disappeared, and it later spread throughout the rest of the ancient Near East. This is why Jesus Christ is often referred to as a shepherd, even though in real life he was actually a carpenter.

The picture of Akhenaten shows him holding a shepherd’s crook, symbolizing his role
as a shepherd. Early Egyptian pharaohs didn’t have this accoutrement. Later pharaohs
got the concept of a shepherd from the Babylonians, who in turn got it from the Sumerians. For the pharaoh, the shepherd’s crook was just an added accessory, almost an afterthought. Everyone knows being a good shepherd to his people was not a pharaoh’s primary concern, but for a Sumerian king, it was his core identity.

Hammurabi. He wears a shepherd hat. He was a Babylonian king who lived 200 years after the end of Sumerian civilization.

Origins of the Sumerian shepherd king:

Two kings named on the Sumerian King List are literally called shepherds. They are
“Etana, the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries”
and “Lugalbanda the shepherd”. They are two semi-mythological kings from Sumerian
prehistory. According to the Sumerian King List, they reigned for 1,500 and 1,200 years
respectively (give or take a few years).

In mythology, the god Dumuzid, husband of Inanna, was a shepherd, and many other gods are figuratively referred to as shepherds. In literature, Sumerian kings were routinely described as being the shepherds of their people.

The Uruk period (circa 4000 to 3000 B.C.) was the beginning of Sumerian civilization. This is when writing was first introduced, when the city-states started to develop, and when the Sumerian concept of kingship began to emerge.

The king of Uruk, the original shepherd king:

Cylinder seal impression showing an Uruk king (right) and a priest feeding the sacred flock of Inanna, the goddess of war and the patron deity of Uruk. The king wears a shepherd hat. The netted skirt is a ceremonial garment worn during the performance of religious rites for Inanna. The king of Uruk was the first shepherd king of Sumer.  See The Kings of Uruk.

The “Warka Stele” (Warka is the modern name for Uruk). The king of Uruk uses a spear and a bow and arrow to hunt lions. This was the beginning of a long tradition of portraying kings involved in the Royal Hunt (also see the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal hunting lions, 668 – 627 B.C.). This tradition would continue throughout history until the modern era. It was meant to show the king being strong and brave. In this case it also serves another purpose: The shepherd king is protecting his flock by killing the predatory lions. The back of the stele is completely destroyed, but there’s a good possibility it originally showed a flock of animals
that the shepherd is defending.

This emphasizes a different aspect of the shepherd king. "Shepherd" conjures up images of someone who is peaceful and pastoral, like the image of the Sumerian king holding a lamb. Yes, a shepherd is the gentle guardian of his flock, but he is also their protector. So a shepherd king needed to be a military commander. He wasn't all about "love and peace",
like a pacifist modern hippie. A hippie king wouldn't last five minutes in the ancient world. Sumerian kings weren’t just peace-loving shepherds. They were also warriors.

The shepherd defending his flock is translated into the king protecting his subjects. On this seal impression he attacks the army of a hostile foreign power while he besieges their city. One enemy soldier tries to tear out an arrow from his thigh, another soldier has been shot through the torso, and yet another soldier has received a painful and humiliating wound in his backside. Scholars have often speculated on the decorative curls on the side of the building (probably a temple or a palace). I would suggest that the curls are actually flames. The building is on fire (perhaps the whole city is on fire).  See a photograph of the seal.

This is the first time in history that a bow and arrow is shown being used in combat. It is also a “recurved bow”, with tips that curve away from the archer when the bow is strung, which gives the arrow greater speed and power. The recurved bow is just another of the countless inventions that can be credited to the Sumerians.

A Sumerian war crime?

These scenes show the king inspecting the prisoners of war. The captives are bound with
ropes and they are sitting or lying on the ground. One prisoner begs for mercy. Both scenes are often described as “the beating of the prisoners”. To modern viewers this would seem like an atrocity, but I would suggest that the scenes represent something else entirely. The prisoners of war are not actually being whipped or beaten – they are being tied up with ropes and/or they're being placed into neck stocks. The loops held by two of the victors are either nooses or neck stocks. On the Standard of Ur, for example, the prisoners have ropes around their necks. On the other hand, it looks like the prisoner on the upper left is being placed into a neck stock. Scenes of war captives placed into neck stocks was a common motif throughout ancient Mesopotamia. A similar scene occurs on one of Sargon’s victory steles (click here to see a drawing, or read Sargon’s Other Victory Stele on this website).

A Sumerian king had no problem portraying himself being ruthless in combat, but he would never show himself calmly watching while defenseless prisoners are being cruelly whipped and beaten. He was not a war criminal, not even by the lax standards of the ancient world, where most wars were total war. Back then, warfare was a lot less civilized.

Moving on from the ancient Uruk period, let’s take a look at the “recent” shepherd kings of the Early Dynastic III period (circa 2600 – 2340 B.C.).

Enmetena/ ruler/ of Lagash

Enmetena ended debt slavery, where a debtor’s family members had to become servants
until the debts were repaid: “A remission of the obligations [ama-gi4] of Lagash he instituted. He returned the mother to the child and returned the child to the mother, and a remission [ama-gi4] of interest-bearing barley loans he instituted.” Ama-gi4 means “return to mother”, and it would later come to mean “freedom” in general. Enmetena was the first known king in history to enact social reforms for the benefit of his subjects. See Enmetena Tablet.

One of Urukagina's Liberty Cones.

Urukagina’s ‘Liberty Cones” are generally regarded as the world’s first comprehensive attempt to improve the conditions of the common people (although some of the credit must go to Enmetena’s earlier efforts; see Enmetena, not Urukagina). These clay cones were inscribed with writing, addressed to the gods, which described Urukagina’s reforms. Then the cones were buried beneath the foundations of a new temple. On the cones Urukagina reports that he dismissed the corrupt temple administrators and court officials who had confiscated people’s private property. He set wage controls, limited the amount that priests could charge to perform their religious services, enacted tax reform, and set up charity for the poor. He also guaranteed basic legal rights for the common citizens. For instance, they could not be forced to sell their property to aristocrats; they could name their own price, and they were protected from retaliation if they chose not to sell. Urukagina enacted his many social reforms so “the orphan or widow to the powerful will not be subjugated.” See Urukagina and his “Liberty Cones”.

In 2350 B.C. the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians under Sargon the Great. The Akkadians would then rule Sumer for almost two centuries. After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, two of the exemplary Sumerian kings were Gudea of Lagash (ca 2140 – 2120 B.C.) and Ur-Namma of Ur (ca 2112 - 2095 B.C.) who became the king of all of Sumer and Akkad. This was the Neo-Sumerian Renaissance, the ultimate expression of Sumerian civilization.


Gudea, the true shepherd, “had everything function as it should in his city . . . He had debts remitted and made all hands clear. . . He opened manacles, removed fetters. . . He undid the tongue of the goad and the whip, replacing them with wool from lamb-bearing sheep. . . He locked up those guilty of capital offences (instead of executing them). . . He had the daughter become the heir in the families without a son.  A day of justice dawned for him. . . Gudea paid attention to the justice of [the gods] Nanshe and Ningirsu. He provided protection for the orphan against the rich, and provided protection for the widow against the powerful.” See Gudea Translation.


Ur-Namma likewise guaranteed that “the orphan to the rich man should not be made subordinate; the widow to the powerful man should not be made subordinate.” He codified the laws of the Land. He was the first known king in history to do so. One of the year names
of his reign was called, “the year Ur-Namma made justice in the land.”

According to Ur-Namma, "I am a source of joy for the Land; my life indeed creates! The fields of barley are resplendent under my rule. Since I have been adorned with the kingship, no one imposes taxes on my abundant crops, which grow tall. The owner of the fields walks through the barley; it rises up to his chest. I drained the marshes. I freed the sons of the poor from their duty of going to fetch firewood. I straightened the road that runs from north to south."  See Ur-Namma Translation and “I am Ur-Namma”.

Ur-Namma wearing a shepherd crown.

The protector of the people:

Let us reconsider some of the previous quotes:

Urukagina: “the orphan or widow to the powerful will not be subjugated.”

Gudea: "provided protection for the orphan against the rich, and provided protection for the widow against the powerful."

Ur-Namma: “the orphan to the rich man should not be made subordinate; the widow to the powerful man should not be made subordinate.”

So, just who were these rich and powerful people? Why did orphans and widows (i.e., the common people) need to be protected from them?

They were the nobility, the priests, and rich merchants. Noblemen oppressed their subjects every chance they got. Priests fleeced their flocks with high fees for their religious services. Rich merchants exploited the people for the sake of profit.

The nobility, the priests, and the rich merchants − these are exact same people that the king relied on for his power. The nobility supported the king with their army of peasants when summoned to the battlefield. The priests gave the king an aura of divinity, so that his rule was sanctioned by the gods. Rich merchants gave the king much needed infusions of gold
in exchange for land and titles of nobility.

Yet the Sumerian king promises to protect the people from his own allies, the ones on whom his power depended. No other king in history dedicated himself to protecting the people against his own aristocracy, his own priesthood, and his own wealthy supporters.

It really is quite extraordinary.

Throughout history, throughout the entire world, a king made little pretense that he governed
on behalf of the people. He was not the People’s King, he was the King of the Nobility. He governed with the consent and cooperation of the nobility, not the people (the priests and merchants supported whoever was in power, regardless). If the people didn’t like it, then that was just too bad. A Sumerian king is the only one who was the champion of the people. He was their guardian and protector, even their servant.

The servant of the people

All Sumerian kings built canals for irrigation and transportation, planted orchards for the poor, and ensured that their subjects were well fed. They also built breweries, which guaranteed their subjects a steady supply of beer. It seems that Sumerian kings were the servants of the people, rather than the other way around. For instance, in the story of The Building of Ningirsu’s Temple, Gudea lists some of his specific duties and those of his officials: “namely, to make the butter abundant; to make the cream abundant. . . to see that the great fields grow rich. . . to see the good fields have provided wheat, emmer and all kinds of pulses, numerous grain heaps. . . to fill the channels with flowing water, to make the marshes full with carp and perch, and to have the inspector of fisheries and the inspector of dikes stand at their posts, to fill the great waters with boats carrying grain, to see that tons, heaps and tons -- the yield of the land of Lagash -- will be piled up."

It sounds like a lot of work. Name another king who did as much.

Of course, not all Sumerian kings lived up the ideal of shepherd kingship. Lugalanda was a notable example (as described on the Urukagina page). He was greedy, corrupt, and sacrilegious, and he had little regard for the well-being of his subjects. Other kings like Eannatum were more concerned about grandiose plans of conquest and dreams of empire rather than the welfare of the common people.

This is best illustrated by the tale of The Great Fatted Bull. The villain of the story is Lu-mah.
He is a strong and powerful king, grasping and greedy. He only cares about warfare and plunder, feasting and slave women, and for this he wants to be worshiped as a living god.

On the other hand, the hero of the story is Su-ba, the “shepherd brother”. He exemplifies the Sumerian ideal of kingship. He is the shepherd king.

Even if a Sumerian king was well intended, he could not necessarily control the greed and corruption of his lords and noblemen, or even his own officials. Although social injustice has existed since time immemorial (from “distant days”, to use Urukagina’s words), it seems that Sumerian kings made valiant efforts to correct it. They weren’t always successful, but at least they kept trying. This is more than can be said for other monarchs (Egyptian pharaohs or Chinese emperors, for instance, or even European kings in the Middle Ages) whose subjects were little more than slaves. It seems that the Sumerian people were better off than most people in the ancient world, and in much of the world today, and this is because their kings modeled themselves on the idea of a shepherd.

Ur-Ningirsu, the son of Gudea.

A crown changes a man when he puts it on.

How it changes him depends on the type of crown. A Sumerian king was expected to be a general, but his crown was not a warrior’s helmet, in which case the people’s sole purpose would be to provide soldiers for his army. His shepherd hat was made of gold, but it was not a bejeweled crown, signifying his wealth at the people’s expense. Though he was sometimes worshiped as a living god, he didn't wear the horned headdress of an actual god, symbolizing his exalted status above the common people. Instead, a Sumerian king put on the crown of a simple shepherd. It was a constant reminder to him (and to everyone else) that his sole duty was to be the guardian and protector of his flock, the people.

The Sumerian civilization developed early, when the rest of the world was still living in the Stone Age. The Sumerians prospered even though they didn't have many natural resources. They didn't have much mineral wealth and they didn't have an abundant supply of wood.
They didn't even have a lot of stone (imagine the civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome
without their endless supply of stone). The Sumerians lasted for thousands of years,
even though they were surrounded by enemies.

I would suggest there is one reason, and one reason alone, why the Sumerians were the first to invent civilization, why they prospered even without natural resources, and why they lasted for as long as they did.

It's all because of the shepherd kings.

Ki-en-gi (Sumer).  It means "Land of the Civilized Lords".

The shepherd kings have been around since the beginning of Sumerian civilization.
See The Kings of Uruk.

February 2, 2015