Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Instructions of Šuruppak

This is as good a candidate as any for the oldest piece of literature in the world.  Composed in ancient Sumer, the world's oldest civilisation, it has been dated to the early to mid-3rd millennium BC.

It is a piece of what is known as "wisdom literature", like the Book of Proverbs in the Bible and the Greek poet Hesiod's Works and Days.  It takes the form of a series of admonitions from the mythical King Šuruppak (or Shuruppak, or Shuruppag) to his son, the legendary hero Ziusudra, who was one of the forerunners of the Biblical character Noah.  It was apparently a popular work in ancient Mesopotamia.

In spite of Šuruppak's kingly status, the ethos and content of the text cannot be described as royal, or even aristocratic.  Rather, the work seems to have been conceived as a source of general, practical advice - of a highly conservative nature - for members of the propertied classes:
"....practical admonitions for wise and effective behavior...." (S.N.Kramer, The Sumerians)

"The admonitions... are generally practical, the overall purpose of which is to prepare any man to live a life of prudence in society and to master control over his own household, not necessarily a royal one." (Francis M. Macatangay, The Wisdom Instructions in the Book of Tobit)

"....a variety of popular sayings derived from daily life.... the document does not appear to present any distinctive, aristocratic values.  Rather, the social references and inherent imagery of the admonitions seem to reflect the disposition of those involved in the management of large households." (Christopher B. Ansberry, Be wise, my son, and make my heart glad)

"These instructions... deal with the problems and temptations of normal life and how to deal effectively with them... the instructions are pragmatic, counseling right behaviour out of self-interest." (Thomas Smothers in Marvin E. Tate et al. (eds.), An Introduction to Wisdom Literature and the Psalms)
The text comes in three sections, and it consists of a long series of proverbs, mostly without very obvious connections between them.  There are some recurring themes, however, and the phrase "do not" is repeated quite a lot.

Modern readers might be drawn to this text by the attraction and mystery of remote antiquity.  Interestingly, the same sentiments animated the author.  He begins by locating Šuruppak's advice in the deep and distant past:
In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years, at that time the wise one who knew how to speak in elaborate words lived in the Land....
Two themes of importance are those of family and authority.  As noted, the generic form of the text is that of a father giving instructions to his son.  The family envisaged appears to be a very traditional one (as befits the world's oldest piece of literature), with the patriarch at the top and the household slaves at the bottom.  As Joel S. Burnett has written in Where is God?:
Parental authority within the household is paradigmatic for this model of instruction set in primordial times....  The setting of the family household is apparent in specific instructions....  The link between divine and parental authorities through the cosmic-household structure is reflected near the text's conclusion....
The last comment is a reference to this passage:
You should not speak arrogantly to your mother; that causes hatred for you. You should not question the words of your mother and your personal god. The mother, like [the god] Utu, gives birth to the man; the father, like a god, makes him bright [?]. The father is like a god: his words are reliable. The instructions of the father should be complied with.
It should be noted, however, that the Instructions are not a religious text and do not affirm the authority of the gods to any great degree.  This is one reason why the comparisons that have been drawn to the Ten Commandments are not convincing.

Authority within the family was not confined to the parents - it embraced elder siblings too:
The elder brother is indeed like a father; the elder sister is indeed like a mother. Listen therefore to your elder brother, and you should be obedient to your elder sister as if she were your mother.
The text also refers to the importance of submission to sources of authority outside the family, which it again equates with age:
The instructions of an old man are precious; you should comply with them!

You should submit to the respected; you should be humble before the powerful.
Another matter of concern is that of gender.  Gender divisions prevail within the family:
You tell your son to come to your home; you tell your daughter to go to her women's quarters.
A number of the admonitions seek to circumscribe male sexual behaviour:
You should not play around with a married young woman: the slander could be serious. My son, you should not sit alone in a chamber with a married woman.

You should not have sex with your slave girl: she will name you with disrespect.

You should not commit rape on someone's daughter; the courtyard will learn of it.

You should not buy a prostitute: she is the sharp edge of a sickle.
Women are also seen as being potentially threatening:
A woman with her own property ruins the house.

The wet-nurses in the women's quarters determine the fate of their lord.
Some of the other themes can be summarised quite briefly.  They include the following:
  • the importance of community opinion and the possibility of slander;
  • exercising control over one's speech;
  • not getting involved in quarrels, whether as a protagonist or otherwise.
We may close with a few final random examples of the text's advice:
You should not vouch for someone: that man will have a hold on you; and you yourself, you should not let somebody vouch for you....

You should not boast; then your words will be trusted.

If you hire a worker, he will share the bread bag with you; he eats with you from the same bag, and finishes up the bag with you. Then he will quit working with you and, saying "I have to live on something", he will serve at the palace.

You should not pass judgment when you drink beer.