Initial development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East is often quoted as the roots of our modern day culture. We are also taught in school that the earliest forms of writings ever employed by humans come from the cuneiform system of Sumer who lived in the area. What we are not necessarily exposed to is that the ancient Sumerians invented many other present day cultural concepts that are still seen in modern day Western world, such as schools, libraries, legal writings and importantly philosophy and our worldview Kramer (1956). To properly understand our present day culture and worldview, it is critical to recognize the Sumerian culture as the unique creative and innovating impulse that laid the foundations for our modern day culture.
The Sumerians were a settled, non-nomadic people who survived on agriculture and lived in temple-centered city-states on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The culture exhibited strong links between social and religious responsibilities. It is likely that the culture existed at least 5,000 years BCE – over 7,000 years ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumer).
While the Sumerians are often perceived as just one of several influential middle-eastern cultures that make up our cultural evolutionary line along with the later Akkadians and the better-known Babylonians, they deserve our special attention as creative innovators who initiated the cultural evolution that continues today in our present day western world.
Identifying Sumer’s real influence on our modern Western culture is somewhat difficult due to the implementations and modifications of their creations by the intervening subsequent cultures of Akkadian and Babylonian.
There existed strong cultural interactions between the Sumer and Akkad cultures. Over the period of the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BCE, the Sumerian culture both coexisted and was conquered by the Akkadians. There is evidence for bilingualism in the Sumer and Akkad societies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_language). While the Akkadian spoken language generally became dominant into the 2nd millennium, the Sumerian persisted as a sacred, ceremonial, literal and scientific spoken language into the 1st millennium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumer#language_and_writing).
Already mentioned is the cuneiform writing system that was first developed by the Sumerians. The later Akkadians and Babylonians employed the same cuneiform method of writing.
The same myths and cultural stories are evidenced in all three cultures Sumer, Akkad and Babylon. Although the story of the struggles and successes of the hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh is best known in a single comprehensive Babylonian writing, it originated much earlier in the literature of Sumer in several stories such as “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven” and “Gilgamesh and Humbaba”: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=c.1.8.1*#
While we trace law codes back to the well-known Babylonian Hammurabi’s Code, they truly originated with the Sumerians. Few of us can name the Sumerian king Urukagina for which there is evidence of his legal code of 600 years before the Babylonian work.
While the extensive interactions between Sumer, Akkad and Babylon tempt one to mash the Sumerian culture into a single cultural concept covering 3,500 years of Middle East history from the peak of Sumerian culture through the Akkadians and Babylonians of the 2nd millennium BCE, it is important to recognize the large differences amongst the three. Sumer pre-dates the Akkadians by at least 1,000 years and the Babylonians by at least 2,000 years. Sumerians were agriculturalists who lived primarily through farming. The Semitic cultures of the region such as Akkadian and Babylonian were primarily nomadic peoples who survived by moving around with their herds of sheep and goats. The difference in languages between Sumer and Akkad required bilingualism in their interactions. Mitchell (2004) highlights the extent of their language differences by stating that “Sumerian is a non-Semitic language unrelated to any other that we know, and is as distant from Akkadian as Chinese is from English.”
It is fortunate for us that original Sumerian writings recorded on preserved clay tablets allow us to explore their culture in great detail. Clay tablets with cuneiform writing have been dated to circa 3,300 BCE (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/edition2/cuneiformwriting.php). The oldest snippets of Sumerian writing appear as word lists intended for study and practice circa 3,000 BCE (Kramer 1956, page 3). Full historical and literature writings start circa 2,600 BCE.
The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk) provides transcriptions for the various Sumerian literary texts. The site deals with over 400 compositions from the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BCE. Within the texts provided, there are many themes that modern day readers will find familiar. The original World creation theme from the Sumerian culture is captured in the story “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld” (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.18.104.22.168#). Here we see the first recording of the separation of the heavens from the earth from the netherworld. In regards to the netherworld, the Sumerians represent it an existence parallel to our regular existence into which beings can journey (“Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld” - http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.4.1). The travel and/or existence of beings in the netherworld is similar to what is encountered in the Egyptian concept of the Duat and has some similarities with the much later Christian concept of Hell. The story of the great flood, including the ultimate saving of humans, is captured in “The Flood Story” (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.7.4#).
Kramer (1956) presents at least 39 cultural aspects of civilization that were originated by the Sumerians and can still be found in our present day Western society:
- Juvenile Delinquency
- International Affairs
- Bicameral Congress
- Civil War historian
- Social Reform
- Law Codes
- Justice and Legal Precedent
- Farmer’s Almanac
- Man’s first cosmogony and cosmology
- Moral ideals
- Aesopica – animal fables
- Literary debates
- “The Flood”
- Dragon slaying
- Literary borrowing
- Epic literature
- Love Song
- Library catalogue
- “Golden Age”
- “Sick” Society
- Liturgical Laments
- “Ideal King” – Messiah
- Long-distance champion
- Sex Symbolism
- Weeping Goddesses – Mater Dolorosa
- Ideal Mother
- Funeral Chants
- Labor’s first victory
Although separated by 6000 years, the links between our modern world and the developments of Sumer are easy to see and should be given more attention by those interested in our cultural evolution.
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Ebeling, J., Flückiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., Taylor, J., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/) Oxford 1998–2006.