Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist


I'm interested in human prehistory- that period of many hundreds of thousands of years between the emergence of homo sapiens and the beginnings of recorded history- and I've gone to Sumer because- as the first civilisation with writing- it's our gateway to prehistory. Go further back in time and there is only archaeology.

So what are the Sumerians saying?

Firstly they are praising their gods and kings. Well, we know how this goes. It is sufficiently familiar. It's what our own media do.

Then they are writing letters- mostly to kings.

The proverbs show them at their most accessible. The proverbs are pious, worldly wise, philosophical, bawdy, humorous. Many of them still have bite.

Finally there are the poems and stories. The most substantial of these is the story of Inana's descent into the underworld. Even in a not particularly poetical translation it is a galloping, thunderous thing. It made me want to read it aloud- so I did. The Sumerians were as frightened of death as we are and consoled themselves by sending their favourite Goddess to Hell- and then brought her back again- just as the Christians later sent Christ.

These may be the first recorded human words- but we're coming in part way through an ongoing story. Sumer is an established society- it has cities, a managed environment, a social hierarchy, wages war, produces great art and practices a religion whose priests are often resented- and that's how things have been for as long as anyone remembers. They have vague memories of a great flood and a set of antediluvian kings who each reigned for tens of thousands of years. They know no more about prehistory than we do- in fact less- because they don't go round digging it up.  We might almost be reading about medieval Europe.
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