Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of February 4th - February 10th,  2000

Sumerian Origins

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   We have been attempting to penetrate the early morning twilight of civilization, but it's difficult to pick out the faint shadowy outlines emerging from the darkness. We know a people of uncertain origin began to drain the marshes around the Plain of Shinar between 5,000 and 4,000 BC. By learning to control the spring freshets through dikes and irrigation ditches, they were able to translate their labors into a rich harvest of grains, of barley and wheat. We know that by 3,000 BC they had established a number of successful city-states, with a powerful agricultural economy and system of trade. They owned cattle, used the ox for ploughing, and had donkeys to pull their wheeled carts and chariots. Their use in copper tools, and craft in gold and silver ornaments, are well attested to by archaeological evidence. Given the abundance of one natural resource, they even left a legacy of architecture, as masters of mud, in the form of sun-dried brick.


Sumerian cunieform script
on a clay tablet

   Sumerian may be one of the oldest languages on the planet. We know that it rose to a preeminence throughout the 2nd millennium BC, until replaced by Semitic Akkadian (pictured in a victory, possibly over the Sumerians, below), the predecessor to a long line of Babylonian influence. However, its written usage as cuneiform continued until Christian times, but seemed entirely out of proportion for the power it exercised over the other Mesopotamian civilizations during this period. Just as Latin continued to remain the language of government, law, and the church long after the Romans had faded into history, so Sumerian continued to remain an important written language long after the Sumerians had been overcome. The language can be read with a high degree of accuracy, yet it remains a mystery in that it stands alone, having no known relation to Semitic, Indo-European, or any other language group of the region.


Akkadian Victory Relief. Note the planets surmounting the mountain.

It is to the Sumerians that we owe our 60 count, from which we derive the number of seconds in a minute, and the number of minutes in an hour, In other words, it is from the Sumerians that our division of time has evolved. Their calendar was lunar, their months beginning when the first lunar crescent (and not the exact astronomical New Moon listed on our wall calendars, which cannot be seen with the naked eye except during an eclipse) was sighted. But as with any lunar calendar system, the priests would have had to add an extra month periodically, either just before the vernal or autumnal equinox, so that the solar and lunar years would not fall out of alignment.

   Just as there are many Greek elements in Roman mythology, it is now hard to discern which parts of Babylonian mythology are original, and which in fact stemmed from the older Sumerian civilization. Here is another Mesopotamian example of celestial order, as crafted by their myths.

   In the Babylonian Creation Myth, Marduk lays down the 'law' for the Moon, by commanding,

   He bade the moon come forth;
entrusted night (to him)
assigned to him adornment of the night
to measure time;
and every month, unfailingly,
he marked off by a crown,
"When the new moon is rising
over the land
shine you with horns, six days to measure;
the seventh day, as half (your) crown (appear),
and (then) let periods of fifteen days be counterparts two halves each month.
As, afterward, the sun gains on you
on heaven's foundations,
wane step by step,
reverse your growth!"*

   It was common for the Moon and the Earth to be thought of as male during this period, as the sky was considered feminine. Sumerian contemporaries, the Eqyptians, also thought of the Moon as masculine. Thoth, was a male Moon god, Geb a male Earth god, while Nut was the feminine goddess of the Night Sky. Even so, the Moon was still thought to rule over the womb, even for the Sumerians.

   The Moon and stars were used as the chief measure of time, and not the Sun, which we use today. Marduk is dividing up time, as the weeks of the month, with the horns representing the crescent New Moon, and the crown the Full Moon. Astrologically, we still believe that the Moon rules over food, and the Sumerians felt that each of the 'quarter' Moons (New, First Quarter, Full, and Third Quarter) were feast days.

   *Echoes of the Ancient Skies, The Astronomy of Ancient Civilizations, Dr. E.C. Krupp, p. 176


Sumerian Images

   The tablet above is an example of Sumerian cuneiform writing; recorded in the twenty-eighth century, BC, it contains business accounts. The scribe's writing reed, or stylus, was usually square-tipped. By pressing a corner of the reed into the clay, each line of the figure was formed. When the clay dried, it was hard enought to make the tablet a fairly permanent record. When baked, they would become as hard as pottery.

Sumerian Bison, circa 25th century BC

   Here we see a beautiful example of a Sumerian Bison from the twenty-fifth century, BC. The tuft under its chin and the long, shaggy hair on its head and body are elaborately worked. This represents one of the last few centuries of the Age of Taurus, and one must wonder if this is a part of the extensive tradition of bovine worship which seems to predominate throughout the Tigris/Euphrates and Nile River Valleys at this time.


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