Detail: Lyre inlay which depicts some rather fanciful scenes and characters. Note the bearded bullmen in the top panel.
1. Verification: Every sign and its definition has been verified through the ePSD, the ETCSL, the CDLI, the Sumerian Lexicon, and other resources (see the Links page for the meanings of these abbreviations). My criteria for using a sign definition was it had to appear at least twice in the ePSD, ETCSL, or the SL (and in the proper context). These are well-attested, commonly accepted definitions that are correct for the period when the tablet was written.
2. Sign recognition: The scribe uses a "compressed" writing style (the signs are simplified to make them easier to write and some of them are shortened to save space on the line). Therefore many of the signs look different than the classic cuneiform script. Every sign on this tablet has been matched with multiple examples from other known tablets. I do not point out all of the compressed signs on this tablet because there are 44 occurrences. Basically, if a sign doesn't look like the ePSD font, then it's compressed, and it can be found on the CDLI's Ur III and Old Babylonian tablets. Click here to see some examples of the compressed signs. Select the "Tablet #36 Sign List" tab on the upper left to see all of the signs on the tablet.
3. Strings: For the sake of word separation, not all the word strings are connected.
4. Pronunciation: Š is pronounced "sh", as in shepherd. Ĝ is pronounced "ng", as in sing. The "H" sound in Sumerian ("ḫ") is pronounced as in the word, "loch". The numerical subscript of a sign (for example, ĝe26) is a modern convention used to delineate the different meanings of the sign. It is not pronounced when the word is said aloud.
For first time readers: Written Sumerian doesn't have a direct word-for-word correlation with verbal speech. For instance, where we would write, "I went to the store to buy some bread", in Sumerian it would probably be written as "store go bread buy". The reader is often left to infer such things as articles (a, an, the), verb tense (go, going, has gone), and personal pronouns (I, you, they go. . . ). All of this would depend on the context of the surrounding sentences. These details would be supplied by the reader when the sentence is read aloud. In a way, Sumerian writing "just hits the high spots", so it can sound somewhat telegraphic. Note, too, that written Sumerian has a "backwards" way of expressing things, in terms of word formation (bull fatted) and syntax (bull to food send). This artificial construction applied only to written Sumerian, in an attempt to make it more readable. When the sentence was read aloud, it was converted to the natural patterns of verbal speech. The first time through, to get a feel for the actual writing on this tablet, you may want to skip the notes, which are rather voluminous, especially at the beginninng.
Clicked on the underscored line number to magnify the drawing of the line.
Transliteration of Tablet #36 in the Library of Congress Cuneiform Collection by: Jerald Jack Starr
The enigmatic mahX (AL, al, mah2, mah, etc.)
# = damaged but readable sign x = damaged unreadable sign
[...] = missing signs
MahX = AL = mah2 = mah: A pun, used throughout the text as “great” (also see:
o7, o8, o11, r7, r10, r11, r14). This one sign (mahX) is the lock, and the key,
to understanding this tablet. An explanation follows, and additional information
can be found in Appendix A at the end of this page.
AL: Whenever a sign name is written in capital letters, it represents any and all of the possible meanings and pronunciations of the sign. AL can mean al: hoe, fence, etc.; and it can also mean mah2: cow. It can also be a CVNE, or it may be just a syllable in one of 72 other Sumerian words listed on the ePSD. The capitalized sign name is used when it's not known which of the meanings apply. So when this sign is first encountered in a line of untranslated text, it's initially called AL because it's not yet known which of its various meanings (and pronunciations) is the one being used.
AL is one of the reasons why this tablet was so difficult to translate. Tablet #36
could be subtitled "What about AL?" The scribe uses the sign a lot, it shows up
in the most unexpected places, and none of the definitions of AL make a bit of sense
within the context of the sentences (and AL isn't being used as a Compound Verb
Nominal Element, in case you were wondering). The sign is used persistently and
intrusively throughout the text, as if the scribe was deliberately over-using the sign
for some unknown reason. Which seems rather odd, because this ubiquitous sign
is completely bewildering in every sentence where it appears.
It slowly began to dawn on me: perhaps it was more than a coincidence that every time
I started to understand the meaning of the text, this annoying sign would pop up again,
only to create more confusion. Although at first I didn't have the faintest idea about
the contents of the tablet, I began to suspect that the mysterious sign was somehow
the key to unlocking a secret translation.
To make a long story short, it took me a long, long time to figure it out. Then one day,
finally, it occurred to me. I realized that AL is really mah2, a pun for mah:
One of the meanings of AL is mah2, an adjective for a dairy cow. I had briefly
considered it as a possible translation for the sign, but I immediately discarded it
because it was bound to be completely nonsensical in any sentence where it appeared.
However, the important thing about the sign is that it's pronounced like mah:
On this tablet, the sign mah2 (cow) is written to mean mah (great, supreme, large,
majestic, etc.). Because the numerical subscripts of a sign are "silent", mah and mah2
are pronounced the same. Throughout the text, in all eight sentences where it appears,
the sign mah2, "cow", is used exactly as if it were the sign mah, meaning "great". The
consistent use of the sign in this particular way requires a new designation for the sign.
It is called:
mahX: = AL = mah2 = mah = "great".
The "X" in mahX stands for an unknown subscript number. As a subscript number, it is unpronounced when the word is said aloud. MahX, mah, and mah2 are pronounced exactly the same.
This at first might not seem like a big deal. It may be clever enough as wordplay,
but it seemed that the scribe had gone through an awful lot of trouble only to bring forth
this one little pun. There is, however, a method to his madness. This sign is used
to obscure the meaning of the text, to make it difficult to read the tablet, because of the
volatile contents of the story. As will later be shown, this sign (pun) is also used
as a hint to the secret context of the tablet.
When I decoded mahX, the confusion in the sentences disappeared. At least now
the sentences were no longer so nonsensical. At least now they could be translated...
which leads to the crux of the problem: Even after this big breakthrough, I had not yet
translated a single complete sentence, or even half of one. Various words and phrases
hinted at many possible meanings for the story, but I still couldn't read the tablet.
The reason why I was having so much difficulty was the "missing context" of the story.
In Sumerian, context is everything – because all of the signs have multiple meanings.
I therefore needed to know the context (subject) of the writing, in order to eliminate the
many alternative definitions of the signs, so I could concentrate only on the meanings
that might actually make some sense within the framework of the story. For instance,
if I knew a story was about animals, with the sign UR, which means "person, pride,
unity, fish, dog, servant, man, etc.", I could ignore all of the definitions except for "dog".
By contrast, all of the definitions could apply if I didn't know the context of the story.
So I therefore needed to know what I was "reading to". Without a known context
it is difficult to read even a simple Sumerian sentence. Not even another Sumerian
could easily read it.
Trying to read Tablet #36 without knowing the context was something of a Catch-22.
I needed to know the context of the writing in order to read the signs, but I had to
read the signs in order to know the context (!) It is very difficult to read a tablet with
an unknown context (and Tablet #36 has two unknown contexts; more on that later).
The missing context(s) of the story is one of the reasons why the tablet seems so
The context of a story is usually given in the first few opening lines of the text.
Unfortunately, the opening lines of the story are missing due to damage on the tablet,
so it seemed that the context would never be known. Fortunately, as luck (or Fate)
would have it, the tablet broke off at just the right place. Here, in the first two signs
of the first readable fragment of a line, is a hint to the "hidden context" of the story.
The two signs are lu2-mahX. As per the pun meaning of mahX, the signs can be
translated as "man-great". On this tablet, lu-mah (big man, great man) is synonymous
with the sign lugal (big man, great man) meaning "lord or king".
This is the secret hidden context of the story: lu-mah = "man-great" = lugal = king.
Lugal isthe Sumerian sign for "king". It is two signs joined together. It's written as gal-lu2, but it's pronounced "lu-gal" (man-great). It is one of the oldest and most recognizable of the Sumerian signs. Unlike most of the other signs, which have multiple meanings, this sign means little else besides its usual definition of "king, lord, master". The scribe doesn't use this symbol because it's too unmistakable, too unambiguous. If the sign lugal was on this tablet, then everyone would know what it's written about.
Lu-mah, literally "man-great", like the above lugal. Mah and gal both mean "great".
lu2 mah2 (mahX)
Lu-mah2, as it appears on Tablet #36. It literally means "man dairy cow", which is nonsensical, but it's pronounced the same as the above lu-mah (man-great). This pun is a hint to the secret "hidden context" of the story: lu2-mahX = "man-great" = lugal = king. Lu-mah is the name of the Great Fatted Bull.
This is not just clever wordplay. Mah2 is introduced early in the story and it is used
many times throughout the text, in a manner for which it was never intended, creating
confusion in every sentence where it appears. If mah2/manX is just a pun, why bother?
Why not use it once, and then use a simple easily recognizable sign like gal (or mah!)
for all other occurrences of the word "great"? The fact is, no self respecting writer
would create so much havoc in his own composition just to pound on one single pun
eight different times. Which begs the question: why does the scribe deliberately
use a sign that's nonsensical in every sentence where it appears? What is his purpose?
To put it simply, mahX is used to obscure the "king" context of the story, and without
a known context, it is difficult, if not impossible, to read the other signs on the tablet.
Here's how lu2-mahX works: "Lu2 = man. Okay, that was easy enough; so far, so good.
Then, AL = al; a hoe? a fence? Surely it's not mah2, a cow??" Mah2 actually means
a "mature, milk producing cow", which is the opposite of a bull in all regards. Mah2 can
refer to any female animal that has given birth and is therefore capable of producing milk.
So even if mah2 is initially considered as a possible translation for the sign, it would be
immediately discarded as nonsensical (man dairy cow?) and so the pun would be lost,
and along with it, the hint to the secret context of the tablet.
That's the beauty and the genius of this sign. Even if the reader guesses the correct
pronunciation of the sign, he doesn't believe it because it's the wrong definition.
When a Sumerian tried to read this tablet and encountered mah2 (cow), he would do
exactly what I did the first time, he would toss the ridiculous cow right out the window,
and in so doing, lose the king context. After trying unsuccessfully to read the tablet
without understanding mahX and the hidden king concept, a Sumerian would give up
and call the tablet "nonsense". This is precisely what the scribe wanted him to do.
Modern Sumerologists did the same thing, and likewise gave up trying to read the tablet.
Only someone who was truly obsessed (like I was) would persevere and keep trying
su-ba = su8-ba. A pun like lu2-mahX, and also the name of the hero. One other
example attested, A Praise Poem for Shulgi X (ETCSL). Even if there was no other
example, it would still be su-ba, "shepherd". I believe that Lu-mah and Su-ba are
the names of the protagonists, even though they are not so-named anywhere else
in the text. It's more than a coincidence that these are the only places on the tablet
where the scribe puns at the sign level.
Sipad, the usual sign for "shepherd".
Su8-ba: This is the lesser known Emesal form of sipad, "shepherd". It is one of the "stacked" Sumerian signs. The lines of a tablet usually had to be drawn wider than normal in order to accommodate it. To try to write this sign within the narrow lines of Tablet #36 would make it illegible. The scribe, who uses every square millimeter of this tablet, wouldn't draw an entire line wider just to fit a single word. Nor would he want to call attention to this very distinctive sign.
Su-ba, as written. It is pronounced like the above su8-ba, but it's unrecognizable as a "shepherd".
Su-ba shesh, the shepherd brother.
Su-ba is just a comman man, who is a shepherd in disguise, and the shepherd is the disguise of a king. He is named for his role in the story, and yet his identity is concealed. It has to be the second greatest name ever given to a fictional character.
Cylinder seal impression. Note the "bull/man" on the left. This character is often ascribed to be Enkidu, the companion of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian warrior-king seen on the right. I have my doubts, as Enkidu was a man who was raised by animals, but not a hybrid bull/man. See another image of Gilgamesh and Enkidu with Enkidu portrayed as a regular man.
Appendix A: Summary of the different ways the meaning of the text is obscured:
1) The mahX encoding of the tablet hides the main context of the story (lugal, king).
Technical Note: Of 3,271 citations, the ePSD gives one instance where mah2 is used as an alternative sign for mah; and the instance is archaic (500 - 1,000 years before this tablet was written) so it hardly counts. It may even be a scribal error, ancient or modern. The fact that mah2 is used as an alternative sign for mah only once in 2,000 years is somewhat surprising. The Sumerian language was syllabic, based on syllables, rather than individual sounds (letters), like English. If a scribe didn't know the sign for a particular word, he would "spell it out" using signs for the syllables that he already knew. In this way, signs with the same (or similar) pronunciations were often used interchangeably, so one would expect that mah was used more often as an alternative sign for mah2, and vice versa (the PSD shows 1,000 citations for mah2 (cow) and none where mah is used as an alternative sign.) The reason these two signs were not used interchangeably is because they were both well-known signs with two very different definitions (mah=great, supreme, majestic; mah2=cow) that were not easily confused for each other. The numbers, 3,270 to 1, indicate just how unlikely it is that the sign mah2 would be given the meaning of mah, "great". To write mah2 for mah once could be a scribal error (a typo), but the sign is used consistently eight different times on this tablet. It was not done out of ignorance, by someone who didn't know any better, because the scribe is clearly a master of the language and he would not make such a careless mistake. Nor is it just wordplay like Su-ba (shepherd) because the scribe does not alter the meanings of su and ba in the rest of the story as he does with mah(2), and he would not be so heavy-handed with one single pun. So, if it's not a scribal error and it's not wordplay, then it must be "encoding", a deliberate attempt to obscure the meaning of the text. I would suggest that the one sign (mahX) is the main reason why this tablet couldn't be translated by the experts, even though a modern Sumerologist can translate anything written in the Sumerian language. I would further suggest that this one sign would also make the tablet difficult to read even for another Sumerian, and for the exact same reason. Even if the sign is initially given the pronuniciation of mah, it would be assumed it's the usual mah2 (cow) and not mah (great). Since "cow" doesn't make any sense in any of the sentences, the pronunciation would be discarded, and along with it, the hint to the secret context of the tablet (i.e.; Lu-mah = man great = lugal = king). It's a very clever bit of encoding that allows the scribe to obscure the context of the story, making it difficult to read the other signs on the tablet, even though they are written in "plain Sumerian".
2) Both Lu-mah and Su-ba, the two main protagonists of the story, are written as puns at the sign level, concealing their identities.
3) The very simple sign for bull, one half of the context, is "miswritten" four times out of five.
4) The setting of the story, Field #5, is written three different ways: field 5, the usual form, with the number following after the noun; 5 pasture, with the number written first; and field 4 (4 diš,), written as a different number form so that it looks like the word ĝar. The number five is also distinctive, written to look like the word i, with a 2 2 1 combination, rather than the usual 3 2 combination. This is because the scribe puns with numbers for the same reason that he puns with words, to obscure the meaning of the text.
As can be seen from the above four notes: the two contexts, the two main protagonists, and the setting of the story – all are disquised in some way. It's difficult to read a story when you don't know what it's about, or who it's about, or where it's taking place.
5) In addition totheking being obscured, two other important words, "fate" and "shepherd", are used in their in their lesser known Emesal forms, na-aĝ2 and su8-ba. The ePSD shows 532 instances for nam, the usual word for fate, and 20 for na-aĝ2. (The scribe only uses nam in it's prefix form (i.e., as part of the word "fatherhood", nam-a-a)). There are 2,415 cases of sipadfor shepherd, and only 25 for su8-ba. Although the Emesal words are readable enough, they are not immediately recognizable like the signs nam and sipad. So why doesn't the scribe use the standard signs for nam, lugal, and sipad? Because once he uses the signs for fate, kings, and shepherds on a tablet, then people would be interested in reading it and they'd be able to figure out the true meaning of the story. The tablet would no longer be so "inconspicuous". The same applies to modern times. I would suggest that had the scribe used these three signs, this tablet never would have been classified as "Administrative", rather than "Literature", and someone else would have translated it long before I ever saw it (translating it would have been easy enough to do since the context would be known). This tablet has been hiding in plain sight ever since it was written, all because the scribe did not use those three signs.
6) Another important sign, geme2 slave woman, is disguised by using only two reverse cunei instead of the usual three, so that it looks like gu "cord". People would be interested in reading about slave women, but not cord.
7) Other signs are disguised to make them difficult to read. For example, the sign for henbur is written with the IN cluster of reverse cunei rather than the še (grain) cluster. The sign for GI is written to look (almost) like ZI,
8) Verbs that mean "to accumulate", which the scribe uses as a way of saying "to grow fat", symbolizing Lu-mah's greed, are very intrusive and they make the tablet difficult to read because they are being used in an unexpected manner.
9) The double-line rulings do not separate major divisions in the story, They are merely used to make the tablet look like a nondescript administration record. That is why it was originally classified this way by the CDLI.
10) The frequent Emesal words are not necessary. They are thrown in simply to keep the reader off balance.
11) The writing often has an unusual syntax. It is not always structured in the usual "Subject Object Verb" sequence of formal writing. This wasn't done to obscure the meaning of the text; it's the result of the scribe's effort to crowd as much information as possible into every line, but it nonetheless makes the tablet difficult to read. Another unusual aspect of this tablet is the fact that almost every sign is a word, not just part of a multi-sign word, or a syllable in a longer word, but a whole word by itself.
12) The strings of three signs in-a-row, and the doubling of many of the others, makes the writing look nonsensical. Some of this is inevitable in Sumerian, where a few signs represent many words, but this tablet seems to have it in excess.
13) There are very few clarifying "grammar particles" on this tablet. If the scribe wanted to make the tablet more readable, he could have easily done so by adding some identifying prefixes and suffixes.
Any one of these factors, by itself, does not make the tablet unreadable; but all of them together make the tablet difficult (if not impossible) to read, even for another Sumerian, until mahX is decoded.
Note on the translation:
For the record, I did not use a lot of literary license when translating this tablet, even though it would have been perfectly justified, considering that it is such a “literary” story. I did the transliteration (the Sumerian sign converted to the Sumerian word) according to strict CDLI standards. For the translation, however, (the translation is the Sumerian word converted to the English word) I allowed myself a little bit of latitude. Most of the literary license that I used is quite obvious, e.g., “fatso”, the use of contractions (“here’s” for “here is”) and the use of italics. Any other minor examples of poetic license that I used are denoted on this page. My criterion was to give the words of the scribe their fullest meaning without adding my own meanings (early in the translation I realized that nothing I could add to this great story would be an improvement). Simply put, my sole concern when translating this tablet was, “How would the scribe say it?” If he was standing in front of a modern American audience, how would he tell the story to them? This story was never meant to read, it was only meant to be spoken, so it should be spoken in the vernacular, the everyday language of the listeners. That's why the use of italics and contractions is warranted for this tablet. I hope the scholars will forgive me for using some poetic license when translating this tablet. It is a poetic story, it deserves a poetic translation.
Nisaba za3- mi2
Nisaba was the goddess who invented writing. She was the patron deity of the scribes. The scribes often signed their compositions with the words, Nisaba zami: "Nisaba be praised!"