The Great Fatted Bull
Tablet #36
Tablet #36 Sign List
Sumerian Images
Sumerian History
The Royal Tombs of Ur
The "Standard" of Ur?
Standard of Ur:  Narrative
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
Mesopotamian Prostitutes
Sumerian Queens
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

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
         ! = miswritten sign    {...} = prefix or suffix    (ES) = Emesal dialect  

          [Unknown number of lines missing]

o1.  za-e?   […]

       You ...

 o2.  [na-aĝ2 (ES, nam)]   [x …]

        Fate ...

 o3.  lu2-maḫX    ḫi-li-a   gu4!  me    [x ...]

        Lu-mah   abundant   bull   be

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:

mah2:  "cow".

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:

mah:  "great".

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 went 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 is the 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.

         lu2                      mah

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

to understand this enigmatic tablet. As described in Aventures in Cuneiform Writing,

when I finally got past mah2 (cow) and I realized that it is actually mahX (great), then 

the secret king was revealed. After that, I started making real progress in the translation

because now I knew the context.

So, in a way, mahX is both the lock and the key to this tablet. It obscures the true

meaning of the text (the lock), but once it's understood it reveals the hidden context

of the story (the key), which makes it possible to read the other signs on the tablet.

The repeated use of mahX is like the tumblers of the lock. A key doesn't work until 

all of the tumblers are in place. When one single word fits in all eight sentences, then

and only then, the tablet finally opens up and it's true meaning is revealed.

The scribe encoded the tablet this way because he is ridiculing great lords and kings.

This was a dangerous thing to do. Sumerian kings were worshiped as living gods,

so they didn't like it when they were ridiculed, not in the least bit. Look at what happens 

to the shepherd brother when he mocks Lu-mah for wanting to be worshiped as a god.

The scribe knew that he could be flogged or even executed for writing this story,

so he didn't want anyone to read this tablet and then report him to the authorities (see 

The Scribe on this website).

On the one hand, he didn't want anyone to read the tablet, but on the other hand, he did.

He had written this really great story, so of course he wanted someone to read it.

That is why he doesn't make the tablet completely unreadable. To make it unreadable

would be easy enough to do because Sumerian writing is barely readable to begin with.

He could simply substitute a bunch of signs for other signs, and only he would know

their intended meaning, or he could easily make up his own signs. Instead, he writes

the story in a way that makes it incomprehensible to a casual reader, but he provides 

all of the necessary clues for a diligent reader to eventually decode the tablet.

With "Lu-mah", the scribe:  1) gives the bull a name, 2) names him for his character,

3) obscures his identity, and 4) gives a hint to the tablet's true context. In addition,

it's a wry comment on the fat bull's waistline (mah also means "to be or make large").

It has to be the greatest name ever given to a fictional character.

The pronunciation of the Sumerian "ḫ" not withstanding, in this particular translation  

the Anglicized pronunciation of Lu-mah is the preferred form. "Maḫ" is pronounced

the way it's spelled in English (it rhymes with "ah"). In this way, one isn't required

to pronounce the word with a Sumerian accent.

In the translation, I added the word "lord" because it's implied in "Lu-mah". For notes 

on hi-li, see line o4.

An experienced Sumerologist might have already noticed that the sign for bull (gu4) 

is "miswritten" here at the beginning of the tablet where the reader would be looking

for the context of the story. The bull is the second hidden context of this tablet.

For notes on gu4, see line o6.

The scribe uses numerous other ways to obscure the meaning of the text, all of which

are explained below, and a summary is given in Appendix A at the end of this page.

 o4.  ba   ḫi-li   nam-a-a   ḫe2   kaš4/de6   nam-[…]

        Allotment   abundant    fatherhood   may (he/it)    messenger/bring 

Because of the missing portion of this line, it's impossible to tell if the Great Fatted Bull 

is the "gift of fatherhood" (as a son) or if the gift is bestowed upon him (as the father). 

I believe the line announces the birth of Lu-mah, the son, because he seems to grow up

and develop into manhood during the course of events, and because the story seems to  

cover his entire lifespan until his retirement ("out to pasture").

The line is written simply as "May (he/it)" but it is tranlated as "May the fatted bull...". 

This is justified by the fact that he is called a bull in the previous sentence and

he's called "great fatted" in the next, and by the necessity of having to introduce 

the two contexts (bull and king) early in the story. I did this to compensate for the fact

that the scribe deliberately obscured both of the contexts, and to compensate for

the missing opening lines of the tablet. Otherwise the beginning of the story would be

confusing for the reader.

Hi-li can mean "beautiful" or "sexy" or "luxuriant" (abundant). Clearly, in this story,

the Great Fatted Bull isn't being called beautiful or sexy, he is being called abundant 


 o5.  gal-niga   {in}-kal   gal-niga-a   lu2-ḫuĝ-ga2   dib2   […]

        Great-fatted   treasured.   Great-fatted-to   man-hired (worker)   send

The unusual syntax of this sentence illustrates why this tablet was such a difficult 

translation. Gal-niga, "great fatted", is an adjective, so it should always be attached 

to a noun (e.g., great fatted bull, great fatted sheep, etc.). Gal-niga occurs twice in this 

sentence, but it isn't attached to anything. It just hovers there. Since it occurs at the

beginning of both sentences where the subject/noun of the sentences should be,

it is used as if it were a proper noun, and not as an adjective. Gal Niga is meant to be

the mock "lordly address" for the Great Fatted Bull. Some readers may object to my

translating it as "Great Fatso" because fatso is a modern term. I translated it this way

for several reasons. First of all, "fatso" is a noun (for instance, a woman isn't called 

a "great beautiful" (adjective), she is called a "great beauty" (noun)). Second, and  

more importantly, I am willing to bet that gal-niga was indeed the word for fatso in the  

Sumerian language, which was deeply rooted in agriculture and animal husbandry. 

So if the Sumerians wanted to call someone a "big fatso", they would call him gal-niga,

like an enormous fatted bull that lumbers in the pasture. "Great Fatso" also conveys the 

obvious sarcastic tone of the scribe (you can hear it in his voice). I would suggest that 

anyone who thinks niga should be limited to "fatted" (Lord Fatted, or The Great Fatted)

for some purely pedantic reason, is simply being too literal. I believe that within the

context of the sentences, "fatso" (Lord Fatso, The Great Fatso) is exactly the way

the scribe would say it if he were reading this tablet to a modern American audience.

This tablet was never meant to be read, it was meant only to be recited by the scribe,
so it should be spoken in the language of the listener. There are different words for fatso
in different languages, but they mean the same thing.

If dib2 is dab5 (the same sign, but with different meanings and pronunciations) the line 

could be interpreted as "the workmen sieze", suggesting conscript labor. Because of

the missing portion of the line it's impossible to know which of the meanings apply.

For additional notes on dib2/dab5, see line r5.

o6.   gu3   gu4!-še3   de6   ba   ša3-gal   gu4!-še3   nin   [x]   dib2 

        Voice (bellow)   bull-to   bring   allotment  food/fodder,   bull-to   lady   [x]   send

Ba = allotment/rations; see line o9 below.

A missing mark on a sign could mean everything – or it could mean nothing. It can

actually change the definition of the sign, or maybe it's just a scribal error, a "typo".

Like in English, if you don't cross the "t" in the word "take", it becomes the word "lake".

Here, and in lines o3 and r7, the sign for bull (gu4) is shown without the vertical stroke.

It is written correctly at the end of line o8. As written, the sign could be interpreted as

2(eše3) or the Old Babylonian version of bi. The sign 2(eše3) is two units of measure

and it's meaningless in the context of the sentences. The Old Babylonian version of bi

is a sign that's been stripped of most of its identifying structure, as part of the process

of simplifying the signs. It didn't appear until very late in the Old Babylonian period

(or as I call it, Severe Babylonian) when lots of other signs were simplified almost

beyond recognition, which is not the case on this tablet. I doubt that it's a scribal error. 

I believe it's a deliberate effort to obscure the meaning of the text. I call the sign

"the half hidden bull" because it looks like a bull hiding in the writing of the text, 

with just his horns showing, as a hint to the context of the tablet:

Gu4, "bull", normal:  It looks like a bull's head.

compressed:  The large triangle is replaced by two smaller triangles (reverse cunei) facing in the opposite direction, and the vertical line is moved into the horn area.

as written:  In the crowded lettering of the tablet, this looks like a bull "hiding" in the writing of the text, with just his horns showing.

In any case, gu4 fits perfectfly within the context of the sentences.  In this sentence

especially (voice + bull + repetitive processing = the bellowing of a bull, SL page 89),

the meaning of the sign is clear. The sign occurs twice in the sentence, in an obvious  

bull context, so it would be a natural place to obscure the appearance of the sign. 

It's interesting to note that the one place where the sign is written correctly (line o8) 

is where it is written the smallest. It's a tiny little sign, written in its compressed form,

that is placed in a crowded margin on the side of the tablet. It is therefore inconspicuous

and difficult to read. It cannot be seen when looking at the front or the back of the tablet,

and it can only be read when the tablet is being held edgewise. See line o8 below

for instructions on how to find the sign on the original tablet. 

Bull?  What bull?

Gu4 (bull) is one half of the context of the story, and yet it's miswritten four times

out of five. Which seems rather odd. Of the 362 complicated signs on the tablet, this

very simple sign is the only one that is consistently "misspelled". It's unlikely that

the scribe, who is clearly an accomplished writer, would make such a stupid mistake

(even an amateur writer like me wouldn't make such a rookie mistake). I am certain

that the scribe did it intentionally, in a devious effort to obscure the meaning of the text. 

He clearly did it to make the tablet difficult to read, and in this regard it worked exactly

as planned:  Early in the translation I saw that gu4 was written correctly in line o8

so I knew that a bull was at least mentioned on the tablet, but I didn't believe it was

the subject of the story because the bull is never mentioned again. It's as though

I caught a brief glimpse of a bull and then he disappeared. Even after I began to suspect

that the bull may actually be a character in the story (because of the many references 

to grain that I was seeing), I still resisted the idea because nowhere else on the tablet 

is the sign for bull clearly written. I thought that maybe the other four signs might 

possibly be gu4 (miswritten, the bull "hidden" in the writing of the text) but I couldn't 

be sure. So I ended up wasting a lot of time trying decipher the bull context of the story,

which should have been rather obvious – if the signs were written correctly. I swear,

it was just like playing a Sumerian version of the game, "Where's Waldo?"

I've gone on about this at some length to demonstrate the kind of challenges that must

be overcome to translate this tablet. Gu4, pronounced "gud", is one of the simplest

of the Sumerian signs. It remained virtually unchanged for 2,000 years, since its earliest

pictograph form (it looks like a bull's head). Then it gets compressed, then miswritten.

It's supposed to be one of the "easy" signs.

Tablet #36 is the only known tablet in the world that has two simultaneous contexts

(bull and king) and both of the contexts are deliberately disguised!  Tablet #36 

has to be one of the most challenging tablets ever written, but notice how the scribe

doesn't attempt to make the tablet completely unreadable. That would be too easy.

Instead, he provides the necessary clues to solve both of the mysteries that he created.

The clue to the hidden king context is the repeated use of the sign mahX. The clue

to the hidden bull context is that the simple sign for bull is written correctly only once

(and very inconspicuously). It really is rather clever.

In my opinion, this scribe is clearly the best writer in all of Sumerian literature.

o7.  na-aĝ2 (ES, nam) -ḫi-li -ĝu10   eš3-maḫX   ĝa2-ĝa2-ĝa2   an

        Fate- abundant- my   shrine-majestic   accumulate (3x)   heaven

In the translation, I added the words "Lu-mah declares". On this tablet, dialogue is not

introduced with phrases like "he said" or "she said". Nor did the Sumerian language

have any helpful devices that separated the spoken word from the rest of the story

(such as commas, quotation marks, and capital letters). The resultant effect can be 

very disconcerting: you're reading along, and before you know it, someone is talking.

So I therefore added to the text several introductions to the spoken word (e.g., line r11: 

"His mother says") which is sometimes necessary when translating Sumerian. I did not

enclose these additions in brackets, for example, [His mother says], to delineate 

my words from those of the author, which is the proper form, because it is too intrusive  

and it interferes with the narrative flow.

The sign mu/ĝu10, "he/my", is written with only two pairs of reverse cunei instead of 

the usual three. I was able to find several other examples on the CDLI where the sign 

is written in this way. The horizontal stroke of the sign is very short (to save space) 

and any attempt to crowd all three pairs of reverse cunei onto such a short sign 

would make it almost illegible.

Eš3-mahX (shrine-great) may be a reference to the Majestic Shrine in the city of 

Nippur, or it may be just a generic term for a "great shrine". Perhaps a shrine is actually

being built by the workers mentioned in line o5. The main reason "Majestic Shrine" 

is capitalized in the translation is to convey some of the obvious hyperbole of the

sentence. The name "Majestic Shrine" was chosen rather than "Magnificent Shrine" 

(its usual title) because Lu-mah is more "majestic" than he is "magnificent".

ĝa2-ĝa2-ĝa2 = ĝar-ĝar-ĝar = "to accumulate".  A (non-numeric) Sumerian sign is

seldom written three times in a row. It happens, but it's relatively rare. It happens three 

different times on this tablet. Here it is used as deliberate exaggeration (hyperbole).

The scribe could have witten the sign once, or even twice, and it would have meant

the same thing (to accumulate). Instead, he writes it three times – this from someone

who otherwise uses a great economy of language.

The strings of three signs in-a-row, and the fact that it seems like half of the other signs

are "doubled up" (usually to indicate plural) is another reason why this tablet is such

a difficult translation. The writing looks wild on the page. Visually, it looks out of control;

it looks like "gibberish". Like the next line:

o8.   iri   niĝin2   kar   niĝin2   gur4-gur4-a   kur9-kur9

        Village  make the rounds   marketplace  wander  feel big/important(2x)-in  enter (plural)

        gana2-5   zal   {in}-kur9   maḫX-šu-gu4   si

        Field-5   pass,   enters.   Great-hand-bull   fill

The above sentence has an unusual syntax and there is quite a lot of information 

packed into a single line of text.

This is the one place on the tablet where gu4 (bull) is written correctly. Note how small

it is, and notice how inconspicuous it is on the orignal tablet  (it's on the second line 

just under the damaged area on the right edge).

Can't find it? Here it is.

Plural:  On this tablet, plural is denoted by writing a sign twice, sometimes the noun,

sometimes the verb (the usual form). Writing the verb twice makes the noun plural.

For instance, "marketplace. . . enter enter" makes the noun (marketplace) plural.

In the next sentence, the noun is pluralized; "wife wife" means "many wives". However,

just because a sign is written twice doesn't automatically make it plural. Sometimes 

it's just the way a word is spelled; for instance, ga-ga means "cream". Sometimes

it's used for emphasis, an example of which can also be found in this sentence: 

gur4 by itself means "to feel important", written twice it means "to feel very important".

There's also a "reduplication class" of words, where writing a sign twice can actually

change its meaning.  In line o16, du8-du8 (duḫ-duḫ) means "grain mash", but in 

line r15, du8-du8 (reduplication class) means "to amass", whereas in line o14

du8 by itself means "to yoke". It's enough to make your head spin.

There's the possibility that Lu-mah's village may actually be a larger city because 

iri = village/town/city, suggesting that he is bullying a much smaller village.

Village(s): should be translated as plural because kur9 (enter) is written twice, 

meaning plural. And if village(s) is plural, then marketplace(s) should also be plural.

They are, however, translated as singular in the English rendition because too many

esses in the sentences made them sound too sibilant. 

Number five:  see note for line o17.        

Again, the same sign three times in-a-row (niĝin2 and gur4 are the same sign, LAGAB)

here used for multiple meanings (rounds, wander) and for emphasis (feel big (twice)).

Two of the three same signs have different meanings (wander, feel big) even though 

they are written side-by-side and visually they are exactly alike. Four of the first six 

characters on this line are the same sign (followed by another sign, kur9, doubled!).

The scribe does something similar in line r15.

Here, and in lines o11, r10, and r11, mahX (AL) is written in a compressed form. 

This is described in greater detail in line o11.

Despite the wild appearance of the writing on the tablet, this is a writer who has a

complete command of the language, a very difficult language at that. The tablet may

look like it's gibberish, like it's a "tale told by an idiot", but it's written by a genius. 

Sometimes it seems like he is just showing off.

 o9.  gana2   ba   e-ne-eĝ3 (ES, inim)   ne   ḫenbur2   tuku   dam-dam-da   ni2-{da}-pap

        Field   allotment   decree   this   henbur   to take   wife (plural)-with  self-virile

Here, and in o4 and o6, ba (allotment) is translated as "gift". It is written in its Emesal 

form, aĝ2-ba (lemma=niĝ2-ba, label=gift) in r7. "Allotment" is more meaningful in the

Sumerian context, given the practice of allotting food rations and parcels of land, etc; 

but it sounds very awkward in the English translation ("an abundant allotment"),

and it requires explanatory comment. "Gift" has a similar context in English, 

it scans better, it ties in with line r7 ("Here's a gift... "), and it doesn't require additional

commentary.  This translation is meant to have a "stand alone" quality, with a 

minimum amount of explication, so that the story can be appreciated on its own merit 

with the least interruption to the narrative flow.

In the translation, I sometimes use contractions; e.g., "I'll take. . ." , for "I will take. . .".

This is a modern convention, the Sumerians didn't use contractions. On a similar note,

I often use italics in the translation. Needless to say, the Sumerians didn't use italics.

These signs were complicated enough to begin with. If they also had to be italicized,

the Sumerian scribes would suffer a collective nervous breakdown.



        henbur2 (grain)          

The scribe uses the IN cluster of reverse cunei for the sign henbur2. It should have

the še (grain) cluster, but then again, the scribe uses eight different versions of še

in signs like zid, li, gal-niga, kur9, etc. As written, henbur2 looks a lot like IN, but with

only one vertical stroke. Of course it could be three scribal errors, but it seems unlikely

that the scribe would mistakenly write IN this way in the exact three places where

henbur2 fits perfectly into the context of the sentences. Henbur is one of the numerous

themes of the story. This is yet another way that the scribe obscures the meaning

of the text, yet another clever way that he fakes the reader out of position.


o10.  [a2#]-ĝu10   ama   da-ni2   da-ri

        [labor]-my   mother   with-self   support

o11.  […x]-a   da   bi   iri    maḫX   inim- lu2-ne   mu   du3   {in!}-kur9

                       . . . village.    Huge   word- dispute   he   all    enters


It seems there is a progression of AL (mahX) from the archaic version with a curved line

to the final compressed version. The fourth sign from the left, which seems to be a

semi-compressed version of mahX, could be interpreted as u5, and the final

fully compressed version looks a lot like ra/rah2. However, I believe they are all mahX

because the word "great" fits seemlessly into all of the sentences where they appear.

On the other hand, none of the definitions of ra/rah2 fit into any of the sentences.

AL doesn't have a compressed form, so the scribe simply made up his own version.

 It is just another one of his tricks to conceal the meaning of the text.

Another reason I don't think the sign is ra occurs in line r11.  A = "to", ra ="to", and

še3 = "to". That's three "to"s in a row. Ra is obviously being used for another purpose.

o12.  […]   [?]   ĝen   gir10   en

                 [?]   go   anger   lord

The damaged sign designated "[?]" at the beginning of the readable portion of the line 

may be nimin, "envy":  the sign NE (anger/burning/ashes) inside the sign for "heart". 

o13.  [en#?]   [x-x]-A   NA   UR   NIĜIN2/{ĜEŠ}-   AŠTE2   DA   NA

        [Lord]   [x-x]-to   man   pride/servant?    surround/wood prefix-   AŠTE2   with man

Multiple meanings for AŠTE2:  chair/throne, trough, reed-bed, etc.

Although there are many intriguing possibilities for this line, I translated it simply as: 

"[Lord (?)]  [x-x] [something, something]" to indicate the damage on the tablet

and to convey the feel of a fight or argument, without speculating on its contents,

which cannot be known for certain because of the missing portion of the line.

o14.  niga-[en#]   iri-ni!   gi   ĝe26   na   šu-ku6   da-{ba-an}-du8

        Fatted-lord   village-his   return.   I   man   thief/bandit   with-yoke 

o15.  mu   bad3   geme2-geme2   šu-šeš-na-a   gid2-a

        He   fortress   slave woman (plural)   hand-(brother-man)-in   drag-into

Šu. . .  a,  "hand. . .  in":  This is a Sumerian convention that means the subject

wriiten between the two signs is "in hand", meaning "held" or "carried", or in this case,


Šeš by itself means "brother". Šeš-na means "brother-man", meaning a male relative.

It is translated as "kinsmen" (plural) because it's assumed the father is also present

since in the next line it seems that Lu-mah is speaking in the presence of the father.

Because the last word before the big argument in line o11 is "village", it's possible 

that Lu-mah took all of the villagers captive, of which only the owners of Grain Field #5

are characters in the story. 

         geme2 = a female servant or slave

What's different about the way the scribe writes this sign is that he uses only two

reverse cunei instead of the usual three. Surprising, the only place that he uses all three

reverse cunei is in line r6, where the sign is not only compressed but actually squashed

in the crowded lettering of the line (above right). As written, the sign could be interpreted

as gu (cord). Although gu is usually written with two vertical lines on the left, it is

sometimes written with only one. However, gu is meaningless in the context of the

sentence, but geme2 fits in all five instances in the three sentences where it appears

and it's one of the 17 minor themes of the story. The signs are disguised to help obscure

the meaning of the story. Geme2 is written correctly only where it's written the smallest,

just like gu4 in line o8, as a hint to its true meaning. If the signs for slave women were

clearly written on the tablet, then everyone would be interested in reading their story

(any story about slave women is bound to be interesting) but the scribe

doesn't want anyone to be interested in reading this tablet. The sign is written

the same way in the stories of The Princess Wife and The Great Fatted Jackass,

and for the same reason: to obscure the meaning of the texts. I call the sign gemeX.

o16.  gana2   ab-ba   duḫ-duḫ   ĝe26   dug4-{e}   mu   te-en-te-en = (ten-ten)

        Field   father   mash   I   order   he   trample

o17.  ĝe26   5-lug   ĝeš bal- dim2   ĝe26-a   gur11-gur11   ba

        I   5-pasture   sell- make.   Me-to   grain heap (plural)   give

The ePSD shows one instance (without citation) where gur11 (GA) is used as an

alternative sign for guru7 (grain heap). I didn't use ga for sheep's milk, or ga-ga

(garX) for cream, because the bull has not heretofore expressed any interest in milk.

He is, however, interested in grain, and the grain heaps will be added to the

"mountain of grain" mentioned in line r12.

          i = 5   

The first sign on the left is i, likewise for the second sign. It is a commonly used sign,

but it's not a number, it's a word, one that has no meaning that fits into the context of

the three sentences where it appears. That's because the scribe uses it to represent

the number five. 5(aš), which is written horizontally (unlike the vertical diš format,

uses a 3-2 combination, as seen in the third sign. On Tablet #36, the scribe uses a

2-2-1 combination to represent the number 5. In a line of text, the sign would naturally

be interpeted as i, which is meaningless in the context of the sentence, causing

some confusion, which helps to obscure the context of the tablet. On the other hand,

the "five" interpretation of the sign fits in all three sentences where it appears: field 5,

pasture 5, and 5 big bowls.

o18.  [x]-da-am3   su-ba (ES, sipad)   šeš

        [x]-like    shepherd   brother

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.

Reverse:  ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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.

r1.    [ki#]   ak-   kiri3-   lu2-   su-ub    teš2  nu-zu   dab5   mu   lu2   nu- kal-la#

        [Ground]   do   nose   man   rub,   all   not-wisdom   seize.  He   man   not- strong

Ki. . .  su-ub:  to prostrate oneself:  Sumerian Lexicon, page 141.

The first part of the sentence seems to be missing a negation (nu):  "I will not bow. . . "

Perhaps it was on the damaged part of the tablet at the beginning of the line, or maybe

it was explained in the damaged portion of the previous line (o18).

teš2 = pride/all. I originally had this phrase translated as "seize pride, not wisdom",

but I now believe that "seize all (everything), not wisdom" better fits the context of

Lu-mah's overwhelming greed. 

  r2.  ki-ma   an   zi-ir   lu2-da  [gu3#]  ir-ir

        Earth   heaven   feel troubled   man-with   [voice/cry out]   plunder  

The usual format of zi-ir is Zi ... ir, where the subject that "feels troubled" is written

between the two signs. Zi-ir by itself means affliction or grief. Given the similarites

of the definitions, I chose "feel troubled" because it is a verb.

Gu3 ="voice/cry out", interpreted as "bellow", which is the usual form of gu3 when it is 

used in the context of a bull. The bull context of the story has already been established.

This line, "... man bellows for plunder", highlights Lu-mah's dual nature of man and bull, 

just like line o8, "... to fill his great bull hands". 

r3.    ti- ze2-ed (ES, tud2)   murgu2- ze2-ed (ES, tud2)   ud-da-am3   {ba}-zig3   en   gir10

        Rib- beat   back/shoulders- beat.   Storm-like   arose    lord   anger

Ti is interpreted as "rib", without the uzu "body" prefix. It occurs without this prefix 

in all 16 examples on the ETCSL.

r4.    šaḫ2   ka-a   gu7   gu7   šaḫ2   zi2   utul2-5

        Pig   mouth-in   food.   Fodder  pig  cut  tureen/large bowl-5

        ka-a   šu   du3   eš2-la2-a

        mouth-in   hand   to drive in,   choke-in/on

Gu7 = food/fodder.  When the signs for "mouth" and "food" are used together, it means

"to eat" (even though gu7 by itself can also mean "to eat, consume"). See also r5

and r10.

Eš2-la2 (verb) = constrict/throttle/suffocate = choke. 

Eš2-la2 (noun) minus the ĝeš "wood" prefix = bucket. I didn't use this interpretation 

because Lu-mah is using his hands to eat, not buckets.

r5.    da-ĝu10   lu   ka/gu3  aĝ2-(ES, niĝ2)-gu7-gu7   šu-da-ni?   dab5-ba

        Side (flank)-my   to make abundant   mouth/bellow   food (plural)   hand-with-his   grasp

Niĝ2-gu7, "thing-to eat", is another Sumerian way of saying "food".

There are multiple interpretations for this line, all of which yield translations that are

essentially the same.  Ka is translated as gu3 "to cry out" ("My flanks... ", he cries out)

which is interpreted as "bellow" in the bull context of the story, as explained in line r2.

If ka is used as "mouth", it applies to the food, meaning "to eat", like in sentences r4 

and r10. Dab5-ba can be translated as "collected" ("that his hands collected") referring 

back to o8: "to fill his great bull hands". Dab5-ba could also be dib2-ba "passing"  

("with his hands passing the food to his mouth"). This confirms my own personal theory

that all Sumerian signs are "dibs and dabs". They can mean one thing, or another, or

their opposites:

dib2:  To send.

dab5:  To seize. In other words, the opposite of dib2.

Naturally, the sign is used both ways on this tablet. It's one of the "joys" of translating

ancient Sumerian; but I digress. . .

Lu, translated as "abundant", is like ĝa2 (ĝar) in line o7 and du8 (reduplicated)

in line r15, all of which mean "to accumulate" (to heap, amass, pile up, add, multiply,

to make abundant, etc.). The scribe uses these verbs as a way of saying "to grow fat" 

to reinforce his theme that the Lu-mah's fatness is a symbol of his greed (see line o7

in the Annotations). It also makes the tablet more difficult to read because the signs

are being used in an unexpected manner.

 r6.   ku10-ku10   mur10   šu-in!-ni2   ab   na-ta   geme2   zag-ni?   er-er

        Darkness   dressed   hand-edge/ledge?-self   window  man-from   slave woman 

        side-his   go (plural)

  r7.  aĝ2-ba (ES, niĝ2-ba)   gu4!   eš   gu3   [maḫX#]-sig3   gin6

        Gift   bull   anoint   bellow   great-burning indigestion   permanent

To get some idea of the difficulty in translating this tablet, notice how the scribe 

writes GI and ZI the same way, except for a very minor difference.


        For GI, there is some separation between the two lower strokes and the upper cluster.


        For ZI, the lower strokes and the upper cluster are merged together.

It's common for GI to be written this way, but never ZI, because it would be too easily

mistaken for GI. The cluster of reverse cunei for zi is essentially the ŠE (grain) sign.

Še (or niga, "fatted") is often used in a compressed form, including the one shown in zi.

As illustrated by a couple of administrative tablets from the CDLI, other scribes were

careful not to use the compressed še cluster for zi so that it wouldn't be confused for gi.

This scribe, however, does it just to mess with your head. He also uses every variation 

for the še cluster form that he can think of. Click here for some examples. But he

gives a hint to his intentions by writing the še cluster for zi in the exact same way

that he writes the še cluster for niga in line r11 below.

r8.    kiri3 kiri3   na-la-ba-ni-[ur#]   la2-la2-{e}   en#

        Nose nose   man-not-his-[servant] (enemy)  throttle (plural)   lord

The line is translated as ". . . throttle each other" because the sign for "throttle" is

written twice, indicating plural.  As can be seen above, the two signs for "throttle" 

are written between the signs for "enemy" and "lord".  If it were only the enemy

who was doing the throttling, it would be written in a subject-object-verb sequence: 

enemy lord throttle. The phrase "nose to nose" also suggests a reciprocal battle,

like "toe to toe" and "man to man".

When I first started translating this tablet, I saw the sign la2 and thought, "Wouldn't it

be funny if someone was actually being throttled?" It's such a cartoonish word, throttle.

But I thought it unlikely that the sign was being used this way. I was sure that one of

the many other definitions of la2 was the one being used because there aren't any

examples in Sumerian literature of someone being throttled. Until now.

Note: As it turns out, I found two other stories where someone is being throttled.
See The Princess Wife and The Great Fatted Jackass on this website.

r9.    e-ne-eĝ3 (ES, inim)   gaba-ri   ka-{ba}-ab   ze2-eĝ3 ze2-eĝ3 (ES, šum2, twice)   en

        Oath   adversary   mouth-opened   give (plural)   lord

r10.  še-gu7   ĝeš-ur3   ne   maḫX!/u5?   gu7-ka   be6

        Grain-fodder   abandon (a claim)   this   great/all   food-mouth (eating)   to diminish

When I originally translated this line, I supplied the personal pronouns ("I will abandon/

I will not eat") which is standard procedure in translating Sumerian. But it seemed odd

that the scribe, who is usually pretty good about keeping up with his personal pronouns,

doesn't include a single one in this sentence. It must be remembered that Lu-mah is

being strangled when he says these words. In the above line, he manages to open 

his mouth to speak. Although "to open the mouth" is a Sumerian convention meaning

"to say", nowhere else in the story does anyone deem it necessary to open their mouth

in order to speak, they just launch right into the spoken word. I therefore translated

this line to suggest the strangulated cries of the bull as he is being throttled.

r11.  [ama#]   nu-mu-nir-aš   niga-en   ĝa2 (ĝe26)-a   maḫX   še3- nu-mu   [zu#   nir#]   ĝar

       [Mother]  not-he-lordly-one   fatted-lord.   Me-to,  great  to  not-he   [know   trust]  place

r12.  dam  a-ni   ḫenbur2-kur   geme2-ni   geme2-tab   ba

        Wife-his   henbur-mountain   slave woman-his   slave woman-companion(s)   share

r13.   li   ne   ḫenbur2-ni   gur10/tuku?

        Twig   this (one)   henbur-his   reap/get 

Lines 12 and 13 are actually parts of the same line. The indentation of the second part

means it is a continuation of the first. They are numbered separately for easy reference.

tuku/gur10:  I call it gur10 (KIN) because of the horizontal line at the top, which tuku 

does not have in line o9. The horizontal line is used on kiĝ2 (KIN) in line r16 (see below)

but that one also includes the reverse cunei used to distinguish the sign. In any case,

it doesn't appreciably change the meaning of the text because tuku = get, gur10 = reap,

so Lu-mah gets/reaps one single twig of his henbur grain.

r14.  ta (ES, a-na, interrogative)   dili   šag4   zu   maḫX-lugud2

        What?   one only.   Stomach   know   great-tight/reduced

r15.  munus!-ĝal2   sar   ru-ru   še   iku-iku   gana2 4 (diš).

        Woman-available   garden   offer(plural)   grain   field measurement (plural)   field-four.

        mu   lug-a   du8-du8

        He   pasture-in   amasses (grows fat, see line r5)

I translated munus-ĝal2, woman-available, as ““unmarried woman” because the

grain fields seem to be some kind of dowry offering, even though this definition

doesn't occur in the ePSD, the ETCSL, or the Sumerian Lexicon. However, munus-ĝal2

also appears in line r9 of The Great Fatted Jackass. In the context of the sentence,

it likewise means an unmarried woman.  I therefore suggest that munus-ĝal2 is the

Sumerian word for a single woman, a bachelorette, if you will.

Three signs in-a-row (iku/gana2):  denoting "acres" (plural), and designating Field #4.

Iku, translated as "acre", = 3600 sq. meters, approximately 90% of an acre. 

The three iku/gana2 signs seem to lack bold vertical strokes on the right, the way it is

written elsewhere in the drawing, but these lines can be seen on the original tablet.

I added the word "again" to the phrase "he grows fat again". In the above line,

"stomach know great tight/reduced" is interpreted to mean "hunger", in the same way

that "mouth" and "food" together means "to eat". But it also suggests a comical 

reduction in the bull's waistline, to contrast with line r5 where he grows visibly fatter 

during the feast. By adding the word "again", both bases are covered.

Left:  4 (diš), which represents the number 4.  Center: The sign ninda, which means

"food". It starts out as a pictograph of a bowl. Over time, it becomes more abstract 

and simplified until it eventually resembles the number four. Ninda is the same sign

as ĝar, meaning "to place", which is the way it is used at the end of r11 above.

Right:  4 (diš), as written on this line. The scribe has been working the "5" angle 

throughout the story (Grain Field #5, Pasture #5, and five big bowls of mash. . . ). 

It has all been leading up to this: "Grain Field #4!"

On a literary tablet which thus far has no numbers (the number 5 has previously been

disguised as i), it would be logical to read this sign as a word, as ĝar or niĝ2. It is

actually the number 4(diš). See a tablet that has niĝ2 and 4(diš) written side by side.

The scribe puns with numbers for the same reason that he puns with words,

to obscure the meaning of the text.

r16.  lu2   kiĝ2   du   ak   [lug]   mu   ĝen  du7-lum   [x]

        Man   work   go   do.   Pasture    he   walk   complete-satisfied 

r17.  mu   usar   e-ne-[eĝ3 (ES, inim)-[bal?]

        He   neighbor woman   converse

r18.  lu2   nu- kal-la   munus   nu-zid   [x]

        Man   not- strong   woman   not-virtuous

In Sumerian literature, you never get to hear about a woman who is not virtuous. The

ETCSL shows 47 entries for munus zid:  woman right (and true). There are zero entries

for munus nu-zid, woman not-right (or true).


[Rest of the tablet missing]

Detail from the "Peace" side of the Standard of Ur.  The king (left, drawn larger to signify his greater importance) drinks with his cronies while being attended by two servants.

© 2008   All rights reserved.  The copyright not withstanding, The Great Fatted Bull is freely available for personal and academic use. The copyright is mainly to insure that nobody claims my work as their own, and to guarantee the free circulation of the story.

Note:   The professional looking fonts displayed on these pages are courtesy of the ePSD;  the others are my own.


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 to the king 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 sipad for 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!"