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A Sumerian Proverb, re-translated

Quite often I find that professional scholars fail to translate Sumerian writings in a way that I believe they could have, and perhaps even should have.

Often it seems to resemble a lack of empathy as far as I can tell, because they seem to have a habit of generally disdaining the accomplishments of these great early people.

Perhaps not intentionally, but certainly modern cultural opinions do seem to influence their work. And of course their huge work load doesn’t afford them adequate time, in many instances.

The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) publishes translations of Sumerian tablets and produces a great many translations of the Sumerian epics.

The ETCSL project is part of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, at the University of Oxford, and the project was founded by Dr. Jeremy Black, a famous British Assyriologist and Sumerologist.

Here’s an example of what I am speaking of, from their translation of one of the lines in “a Proverb from Urim”.

Urim is referred to most frequently by American scholars as “Ur”, and it is famous as the home of Abraham, born in Ur (of the Chaldees, modern-day Iraq).

“Let the snake find its deep hole, the scorpion its crevice, and the hyena its exit.”
Proverbs: from Urim (c.6.2.3), line c623.118.1

When I read their translation alarm bells began ringing. (Actually I believe it was my well-developed crap-detector that was going off).

A snake might find its deep hole, and scorpions do like the crevices in rock formations, but since when would a hyena seek its exit? Hyenas are scavengers, and not much
attention is normally paid to their lifestyle other than noting those attributes.

Why would the Sumerians care enough to mention the exit of a Hyena in a Proverb? Could it be that unless given an exit, a Hyena would be more vicious?  No.  They are what they are;
cowards that normally hunt in packs. So exits are the routes that they choose when they are done scavenging their meal or stealing it from other animals.

Here are the transliterated Sumerian words from that line of the Proverb:

1. /muš\-e ki-ur3-bi /giri2\ ki-in-dar-bi
2. /kir4?\-e ki-e3-bi /?e2\-ni-in-kig2-kig2-e

Let’s translate each word in turn, and see what we have.

muš = serpent, snake
ki = earth, land, dirt
and ur3 = roof , so earthen roof, or a hole in the ground is the most likely meaning.
bi – verbal joiner
giri2 = razor; sword, dagger, but we see also the idea of a scorpion, with its dagger-tail
ki = earth, land, dirt
in = demarcated zone or sector (area)
dar = to break up, to split, to cut open, to crush, crack off (a crevice)

So we have : Serpent – its earthen roof, Scorpion – its crevice sector in the earth.

Not too far off from the final translation that ETCSL came up with. But let’s look at the next line:

Here they begin by assigning a meaning for the symbol kir4 of “Hyena”. It has been assumed to have that meaning, but the only way in which it will fit in with the rest of the text is by assigning the other seven symbols to form just one meaning – that of “exit.”

But is that what we have here? Here is their hyena, and the next seven words defined.

kir4 = hyena ?
ki = land, ground, earth, country
e3 = to leave, to go out; to remove, take away; to bring out;
e2 = house; temple; household; room; house-lot; estate
ni = to pass, to flow
in = sector, demarcated zone
kig2 = to work, to love, beloved
kig2 = to work, to love, beloved (I’ve found that when it is repeated, we usually are to
use the repeated portion to amplify or enhance the meanings).
e = to raise, rear (a child);

So with their translation and the inclusion of the seven meanings that they felt it was appropriate to ignore, we have something like “The Hyena to leave the country, to pass to his home sector, to love and be beloved, to raise children.”

Well, it sounds like a more complete explanation than simply “to exit” but are these really the activities of a Hyena?

How about if I told you that the word kir4 has also been used to mean “charioteer”?

The Charioteer leaves the field (of battle), to return to his home location; and there to love and be loved, and to raise a family.

The Sumerians were very proud of their chariots, and loved their horses. In fact they very probably learned this from visiting Hurrians, who were moving into that area and had originated in the Caucasus mountains, where they very early raised horses.

My research tells me that Abraham himself was a Hurrian, and his ancestors were from Harran, near the border of Syria and Turkey. A translated tablet that I have reviewed tells us that he worked as a scribe in Ur while his father sold idols and probably worked in the local temple as well.

We can see that this meaning of Charioteer fits the theme much better, in that a snake an a scorpion are both predators, fierce warriors in their own domains, and quick to strike. The Charioteers of the Sumerians were the first in battle – they led the rest of the army, and were known for their quick strikes into enemy territory.

So here we have the Sumerians expressing pride in their Charioteers, and even comparing them to the fast-striking, fierce, and deadly snakes and scorpions common to their desert domain.

So let’s republish this saying from the Proverbs of Ur:

The Serpent has its earthen roof, while the Scorpion finds cracks in the Earth.
Our Charioteers leave the field, and return to their own homes; there to love and be loved, and to raise their families.

By the way, just as a sort of confirmation that we are correct with our new translation, I found the phrase “kir3-dab5-me” in another text, and it has been translated as:
kir4 = chariot, charioteer, Chariot drivers
dab5 = to seize, to bind, to overwhelm, to envelop
me = battle, combat.

Which gives us : Charioteers; to envelop and overwhelm in battle. Almost like the idea of our own Marines, who were the first to fight and considered deadly by the enemy.

And to offer even further confirmation, the word kir4-dab5 was later the Akkadian loan word “kartappu”, which they defined as “animal driver” and “driver”.

My intention here is not to belittle the hard work and excellent results produced by our own Sumerian translators. Certainly with all of the hundreds of thousands of tablets that are awaiting translation they have their work cut out for them. And they do an excellent job. Except that, perhaps due to their back-load of work and the handful of qualified translators, they sometimes go for the simplest result and perhaps not the most culturally accurate one.