Research Showcases Literature

2.1. Gudea Cylinder A. Observations on the text’s micro-structure. by Lucrezia Menicatti, MA

2.2. Notes on the construction of meaning in an Old Babylonian bilingual proverb about exotic animals. by Dr. Frank Simons

2.1. Gudea Cylinder A

Observations on the text’s micro-structure

Written by Lucrezia Menicatti (MA)

How to cite: Menicatti, L., 2020, “Gudea Cylinder A: Observations on the text´s micro-structure,” Project REPAC (ERC Grant no. 803060), 2019-2024, at (accessed day/month/year).

© Musée du Louvre/ Philippe Fuzeau

Gudea Cylinder A is a complex and refined literary work. As Suter 2000, 132-133, remarks, the motif of the divine fate frames the entire text in a huge ring-composition structure. In the following, we will offer an example of REPAC’s approach to Ancient Mesopotamian literary compositions by focusing on some of the devices shaping the text, with its contiguous and near-contiguous textual units, on the micro-level. These devices include structural formulas, textual and inter-textual parallelisms, and narrative repetitions.

By focusing on such phenomena, REPAC’s research seeks a deeper understanding of how meaning was created in Ancient Mesopotamia. Our aim in the present context is more modest; we simply seek to highlight the role played by some forms of repetition as structuring devices in a sophisticated written product such as Gudea Cylinder A.

Cylinder de Gudea
© 2006 RMN / Franck Raux

The Ring Composition Frame

The theme of divine fate encloses the entire Gudea text in a ring composition frame. The motif is introduced in the opening formula u4 /an-ki- a nam tar-[re]-/da\, “When fate was being decided in heaven and earth” (lit. “in the day in which fate was being cut in heaven and earth”).

This formula is borrowed from the epic genre and occurs in Sumerian narrative from as early as the Early Dynastic period (Black 1992, 93-95). This opening therefore constitutes an intertextual reference that places the hymn within a long tradition. Furthermore, the formula is meant to set the narrative action in a mythological past, thereby giving a mythological character to Gudea’s deeds.

The theme of divine fate and will occurs again at the closure of Cylinder B (CB 24, 9-17), when the Eninnu receives divine blessing, having been ‘joined together’ with heaven and earth (Suter 2000, 132-133).

Formulaic Repetitions and Repetitive Narrative Patterns

Formulaic Repetitions

Successive series of narrative sequences constitute the internal structure of Gudea’s Cylinder A, and fixed sets of expressions which we define structural formulas mark the transition from one of these narrative sequences to the subsequent one. These expressions consistently occur in the same narrative context – that is, at the end or at the beginning of a given narrative section. The initial part of Gudea’s text provides evidence for three such formulas.

One of these, sipa-zi gu3-de2-a gal mu-zu gal i3-ga-tum3-mu (“the right shepherd, Gudea, learnt much and put much into action”) occurs at four different places in the text. It marks the transition to a new action sequence, or a pause between two events (Averbeck 1987, 264-265). It is used after Nanshe’s revelation (CA 7:10), after Gudea has celebrated the rituals for Ningirsu (CA 12:20) and after the building of the Eninnu is finally completed (CA 25:22-23). The presence of the prefix /nga/ in the verbal form i3-ga-tum3-mu is a significant marker, since it is rare and was definitely not productive anymore by the Gudea’s time, but it only occurs in fixed expressions (Jagersma 2010, 513).

Two more formulaic repetitions occur in the initial part of Cylinder A in a similar context. One is the clause ga-na ga-na-ab-dug4 (“I really must tell it to her”), which introduces Gudea’s speech to the goddess Nanshe. The second consists of a longer clause, ama-ĝu10 ma-mu- ĝu10 ga-na-de6 (“I shall bring my dream to my mother”) which opens the section in which Gudea tells Nanshe about his dream.

These two formulas also involve sound repetition. In the first case (ga-na ga-na-ab-dug4) the directive expression /gana/ reproduces the exact same sounds of the two prefixes at the beginning of the following verbal form, the modal prefix ga- and the indirect object prefix –(n)na-. The second formula includes an alliteration of /m/ and /ĝ/ as well as the assonance of /a/ and /u/ (ama-ĝu10 ma-mu- ĝu10).

Repetitive Narrative Patterns

The ‘naming of the stelas’ (CA 23: 8 – 24: 7) is a long narrative sequence that shows repetitive patterns, and in particular structural parallelisms. Gudea names each of the seven stelas which he has erected surrounding the Eninnu. The naming of each stela takes up five lines.

The first line consists of an opening expression, which identifies the stela by the place where it was erected – an example from CA 23: 13 consists of na kan4-sur-ra bi-du3-a-na ‘to his stone, which he set up at the Kan-sura gate’. This follows the fixed structure na ‘stone’ — locative noun phrase – verbal form bi2-du3-a-na (‘that he erected’). The locative noun phrase changes according to the context, but the noun na ‘stone’, that functions as the absolutive of the relative clause, and the nominalized verbal form bi2-du3-a-na ‘which he erected’ are repeated in all the seven episodes.

The second line consists of the noun phrase na-du3-a ‘stela’ (literally ‘erected stone’) in the absolutive. The name of the given stela follows, starting with a periphrasis referring to Ningirsu. In the first occurrence, the sequence reads: na-du3-a lugal kisal si “the stela, ‘the king who fills the courtyard…”

The name of the stela continues in the third line, which is always repeated identically and places Gudea’s name alongside Ningirsu’s (gu3-de2-a en dnin-gir2-su2-ke4, ‘Gudea, the lord Ningirsu…’). Ningirsu is always the agent of the sentence, whereas Gudea does not always maintain the same logical function. In the first occurrence, this name is the direct object, in the second it is in the terminative, and so on. But no case marker follows his name. The notation of the case marker after a vowel was not common in Gudea’s time, but its systematic omission here may indicate an intention to preserve the symmetry and repetitive pattern of the passages.

The main verb of the clause (mu-zu) appears in the fourth line, preceded by a noun phrase with an adverbial meaning – the first occurrence includes gir2-nun-ta mu-zu ‘he knows him from a princely way’.

The fifth line consists of the closing formula na-ba mu-še3 im-ma-sa4 ‘to this stone he gave it as a name’, which is identical in every instance.

Similar examples of structural parallelisms can be detected in many more places in Gudea’s text. Examples include the sequence of Gudea’s prayers which is repeated three times, first, to Ningirsu, secondly to Gatumdug, and thirdly to Nanshe. Many more of these patterns may be identified. Because of their repetitive narrative structure, these sequences resemble very closely the ‘typical scenes’ and the ‘themes’ that characterise oral and aural poetry (Lord 2005, 133-134). The wider ramifications of this phenomenon cannot be discussed here exhaustively, but they are currently being studied within REPAC.

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Selected Bibliography

Averbeck, R.E. 1987, A Preliminary Study of Ritual and Structure in the Cylinders of Gudea (2 volumes). Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Dropsie College.
Black, J. 1992, ‘Some Features of Sumerian Narrative Poetry’ in M. E. Vogelzang and H.L.J. Vanstiphout (eds.) Mesopotamian Epic Literature: Oral or Aural? Lewiston, NY, 70-101.
Edzard, D. 1997, Gudea and his Dynasty. The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia – Early Periods 3/1, Toronto.
Falkenstein, A. 1966, Die Inschriften Gudeas von Lagaš: Einleitung. Analecta Orientalia 30, Rome.
Jagersma, B2010 A Descriptive Sumerian Grammar. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Universiteit Leiden.
Lord, A.B. 2005, Il cantore di storie, G. Schilardi (trans.). Lecce.
Römer, W. H. Ph. 2010, Die Zylinderinschriften von Gudea. Münster.
Suter, C.E. 2000, Gudea’s Temple Building: The Representation of an Early Mesopotamian Ruler in Text and Image. Groningen.
Thureau-Dangin, F. 1905, Les Inscriptions de Sumer et d’Akkad. Transcription et Traduction. Paris.

2.2. Notes on the construction of meaning in an Old Babylonian bilingual proverb about exotic animals

Written by Dr Frank Simons BA (Hons), MPhil.

How to cite: Simons, F., 2021, “Notes on the construction of meaning in an Old Babylonian bilingual proverb about exotic animals,” Project REPAC (ERC Grant no. 803060), 2019-2024, at 10.25365/phaidra.261 (accessed day/month/year).

Among the less well-attested collections of proverbs from the Old Babylonian period, one bilingual example stands out as particularly interesting. The collection is preserved on just two tablets, one of which remains unpublished (courtesy J. Matuszak). The published tablet, N 3395, is a two column school tablet from Nippur, first edited by Lambert (1960: 272-3), and later re-edited more comprehensively by Alster (1997: 288-9). 1 The entire collection contains somewhere in the region of 20 proverbs, though the manuscripts are not exact duplicates so it is impossible to be sure of its original extent. The collection as a whole has several interesting features, but here we will consider just a single proverb:

In each of the first four lines a very rare word – Sumerian in 3 instances, Akkadian in the other – is paired with a relatively common one in the other language: d i – b i – d a is otherwise attested only in a lexical list (Civil 1971: 179),2 t i l – l u – u g only in the royal praise poem Šulgi B (Castellino 1972: 36-37, l. 59; ETCSL l. 58.), and g u l – l u m and margû are hapax legomena (contra CAD M/1: 278 s.v. margû A. See Simons forthcoming A: §2c). The better attested d ì m – š á ḫ is known from a handful of texts, mostly lexical, as a word for bear (Simons forthcoming A: §§2a-2b), and with the exception of margû the Akkadian equivalents are all perfectly commonplace – imēru, šurānu and pīru are the usual words for donkey, cat and elephant respectively.

At first glance, the superabundance of rare words in this proverb is unusual and difficult to understand. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that the choice of this succession of rare words seems to have been motivated by the assonance and consonance of their constituent parts. The words g u l – l u m and t i l – l u – u g are phonetically related, revolving around /g/ and /l/, while d i – b i – d a and d ì m-š á ḫ share the almost homophonous initial sounds /dib/ and /dim/, as well as a similar pattern of vowels. The final syllable of g u l – l u m nearly forms a palindrome with the succeeding first syllable of m e – l u ḫ – ḫ a.3 Similarly, the juxtaposition of d ì m – š á ḫ, m a r – ḫ a – š i, margû and paraḫše emphasises the repetition of the consonants /m/, /š/, /ḫ/ and /r/. The same consonants are also notable in the other Akkadian animal names, imēru, šurānu, and pīru. It seems likely that this influenced the use of the word margû as the equivalent to Sumerian d ì m – š á ḫ, which is otherwise only equated with dabû ‘bear.’ In addition, the sign DÌM is composed of the signs GAL and LUGAL which, were they to be pronounced aloud, would resound with g u l – l u m and t i l – l u – u g.

Given the fact that the rare words explicitly refer to foreign animals, it seems wholly plausible that they are not in fact Sumerian or Akkadian per se, but rather foreign names of foreign animals. This is almost certainly the case for the otherwise unknown margû. The CAD understands margû as a foreign word (CAD M/1: 278 s.v. margû A), presumably on the basis that an Akkadian etymology gives either a deverbal noun from ruggû ‘to wrong, to make illegitimate claims’ (CAD R: 404 s.v. ruggû) + ma-, or a quadriliteral root *mrgˀ. The language of Marḫaši (the Jiroft civilisation) is almost completely unknown, but as the animal in question is said to be ‘of Marḫaši’, and the word margû is evidently a loanword from an uncertain language, it is perhaps within the bounds of reason to suggest that margû is a remnant of this language. The same may also be suggested of g u l – l u m and the language of Meluḫḫa (the Indus Valley civilisation), and perhaps of d i – b i – d a and Elamite, though I can find no plausible candidate in the Elamisches Wörterbuch (Hinz & Koch 1987). It is also plausible that this is ultimately another loanword from the Indus Valley civilisation. No country is given for the t i l – l u – u g but it is equally likely to be a foreign word.4

Clearly this proverb is a work of some poetic skill. The euphony present throughout the first four lines demonstrates that the words were carefully chosen, and, as Steinkeller has pointed out, the whole proverb is also geographically organised, with the lands listed in order from west to east (Steinkeller 1980: 9). This led Civil to suggest that the animals may stand figuratively, or through alliteration or pun, for the lands from which they are said to come (Civil 1998: 11-12, n. 6). The animals dealt with in the proverb, however, are at least plausibly identifiable with actual animals, and the practice of presenting exotic animals as diplomatic gifts make it likely that they actually came, or were thought to have come, from the lands in question. This will be discussed at greater length in a forthcoming paper (Simons forthcoming B) which will deal with the identities of the animals involved.

Crisostomo has recently demonstrated that Sumerian and bilingual proverb collections were assembled using the same sorts of analogical techniques as were lexical lists, and that individual proverbs could be generated, among other methods, through interlingual phonological analogies (Crisostomo 2019: 154-155). That is to say, phonetic correspondences between Sumerian and Akkadian words and phrases could play a large role in the development of proverbs. This offers a rather better way of interpreting the proverb discussed here. As we have discussed, there are clear interlingual analogies in the proverb between Sumerian, Akkadian, and whichever foreign languages the animal names came from. Following Crisostomo’s argument, these should be understood as the basis from which the text developed – the euphonic juxtaposition of foreign names for comparably powerful animals and foreign place names is the root of the proverb. The succession of very rare words we have examined here is, therefore, not merely an aesthetic choice, but is in fact fundamental to the development of meaning in this text.

1 Alster notes that Lambert’s edition was made before the tablet was baked. It has also been collated by Castellino 1972: 117 and by Civil 1998: 11 n. 5. The edition given here follows that of Alster.

2 Izi? “C“ iv 35. d i – b i – d a = e-me-ru ‘d i b i d a = donkey’. This is a Middle Assyrian tablet (VAT 9714; CDLI P282498) provisionally assigned to the acrographic lexical series Izi = išātu by Civil, but with the proviso that it is likely a development from the exclusively Old Babylonian series N í g – g a = makkūru, and its exact identification is therefore uncertain.

3 It is possible that both d i – b i – d a a n – š a 4 -a nki – n a and g u l – l u m m e – l u ḫ – ḫ aki are sandhi spellings, which is to say that the animal name and the place name have rolled into one – d i b i d a n š a n and g u l l u m m e l u ḫ ḫ a respectively. It is not possible to be certain, however, as both d i b i d a and g u l l u m are so rare that we do not know their normal forms.

4 It has been noted that d ì m – š á ḫ seems to have been borrowed from a Semitic language (Civil 1998: 12). See further Simons forthcoming A: §2a, n. 21.

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Alster, B. 1997, Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections (2 Volumes). Bethesda, MD.
Castellino, G.R. 1972, Two Šulgi Hymns (BC). Studi Semitici 42, Rome.
Civil, M. 1971, Izi = išātu, Ká-gal = abullu, and Níg-ga = makkūru. Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon 13, Rome.
Civil, M. 1998, ‘“Adamdun,” the Hippopotamus, and the Crocodile’ in Journal of Cuneiform Studies 50, 11-14.
Crisostomo, J. 2019, ‘Creating Proverbs: The Listing Scholarship of the Sumerian Proverbs Collections’ in KASKAL 16, 141-157.
Hinz, W./H. Koch, 1987, Elamisches Wörterbuch (2 Volumes). Berlin.
Lambert, W.G. 1960, Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford.
Simons, F. forthcoming A, ‘Lions and Bison and Bears, oh my! Thoughts on some rare words in the cuneiform lexical tradition I – Animals and Instruments.’
Simons, F. forthcoming B, ‘The Donkey of Anšan – a Rhinoceros in Mesopotamia?’
Steinkeller, P. 1980, ‘The Old Akkadian Term for <<Easterner>>’ in Revue d’Assyriologie 74, 1-9.