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Sumerian literature

Sumerian inscription on a ceramic stone plaque.

Sumerian literature constitutes the earliest known corpus of recorded literature, including the religious writings and other traditional stories maintained by the Sumerian civilization and largely preserved by the later Akkadian and Babylonian empires. These records were written in the Sumerian language in the 18th and 17th centuries BC during the Middle Bronze Age.[1]

The Sumerians invented one of the first writing systems, developing Sumerian cuneiform writing out of earlier proto-writing systems by about the 30th century BC. [citation needed] The Sumerian language remained in official and literary use in the Akkadian and Babylonian empires, even after the spoken language disappeared from the population; literacy was widespread, and the Sumerian texts that students copied heavily influenced later Babylonian literature.[2]


Most Sumerian literature is written in left-justified lines,[1] and could contain line-based organization such as the couplet or the stanza,[3] but the Sumerian definition of poetry is unknown. It is not rhymed, although “comparable effects were sometimes exploited.”[1] Though rhymeless, the intricate patterns of similar and alternating sounds of vowels and consonants and the similar and alternating verb and noun endings give the language a musical resonance.[4][5] It did not use syllabo-tonic versification,[6] and the writing system precludes detection of rhythm, metre, rhyme, or alliteration.[1] Quantitative analysis of other possible poetic features seems to be lacking, or has been intentionally hidden by the scribes who recorded the writing[citation needed].

Literary genres and topics

Genre is often the first judgement made of ancient literature; types of literature were not clearly defined, and all Sumerian literature incorporated poetic aspects. Sumerian poems demonstrate basic elements of poetry, including lines, imagery, and metaphor. Humans, gods, talking animals, and inanimate objects were all incorporated as characters. Suspense and humor were both incorporated into Sumerian stories. These stories were primarily shared orally, though they were also recorded by scribes. Some works were associated with specific musical instruments or contexts and may have been performed in specific settings. Sumerian literature did not use titles, instead being referred to by the work's first line.[7]

Based on the categorization work of Miguel Civil, Modern assyriologists have divided the extant corpus of Sumerian literature into broad categories[8] including "Literary Catalogs", "Narratives and Mythological Compositions", "Historical Compositions and Praise Poetry", "Letters, Letter Prayers and Laws", "Hymns and Songs", "Heterogenous Compositions" (including Wisdom literature), and "Proverbs".

Literary catalogs

Narrative and mythological compositions

Historical compositions

Letters and laws


Heterogeneous compositions


See also


  1. ^ a b c d Black et al. 2006, Introduction.
  2. ^ Black et al. 2006, p. xlix.
  3. ^ Michalowski p. 144
  4. ^ Wolkstein 1983, p. 137.
  5. ^ Wolkstein 1983 "Piotr Michalowski, "Carminative Magic: Towards an Understanding of Sumerian Poetics." Unpublished manuscript."
  6. ^ Michalowski p. 146
  7. ^ Black, Jeremy; Cunningham, Graham; Robson, Eleanor; Zólyomi, Gábor (2004-11-25). "Introduction". The Literature of Ancient Sumer. OUP Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-155572-5.
  8. ^ Cunningham, Graham. "ETCSLcatalogue". Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Retrieved 11 December 2021.


Further reading

  • Samuel Noah Kramer (1963). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226452388.
  • Piotr Michalowski (1996). "Ancient Poetics". In M. E. Vogelzang; H. L. J. Vanstiphout (eds.). Mesopotamian Poetic Language: Sumerian and Akkadian. Styx.
  • Jeremy Black (1998). Reading Sumerian Poetry. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801435980.
  • Shin Shifra (2008). Words as Magic and the Magic in Words. Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, The Israeli Ministry of Defence Press (in Hebrew). These are transcriptions of Shifra's discourses on literature of the Ancient Near East, first broadcast as a "University on the Air" course on the Israeli Army Radio.
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Sumerian literature
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