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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
king of Uruk, the original shepherd king:
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.
“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
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.
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.
Sumerian war crime?
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).
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
Enmetena/ ruler/ of Lagash
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.
‘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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.