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Wisdom of Babylon: The Instructions of Shuruppak to Ziusudra
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Don't draw up water that you cannot reach. [51-52]

Water that you cannot reach, are you able to draw it up? Is there a need for a saying like that or ""Do not cut yourself with an axe"? You may have thought it goes without saying. Well, some things may need to be made explicit, as "The fool loses something [111-114]." It is a definition - The sayings are found further down, among others.

The counsels on this page of Sumerian wisdom literature are pithy. They state three times that King Shuruppak gave them to his son Ziusudra. They aim at piety, virtue, and maintaining community standards.

In its oldest known written form the set of instructions dates to the early third millennium BCE, (ca. 2600 BCE – ca. 2500 BCE). It is thus among the oldest surviving literature.

King Shuruppak is presented as the last king of Sumer before the great flood hit Mesopotamia, and the son of King Ubartutu (Ubara-Tutu) who lived for 18,500 years before a great flood hit Mesopotamia. King Ubara-Tutu is listed as the ruler of Shuruppak and the last king "before the flood". [WP sv. "Sumerian King List"].

However, in the WB-62 Sumerian king list recension, Ziusudra, or Zin-Suddu of Shuruppak, is the last king before the flood. He is recorded as having reigned as both king and priest for 36,000 years. His name means "found long life" . . . In this version, Ziusudra inherits rulership from his father Shuruppak, who ruled for 36,000 years. The line following Ziusudra in WB-62 reads: Then the flood swept over. The next line tells that after the flood swept over, the kingship was reestablished in the northern city of Kish. [WP sv. "Ziusudra"; "Sumerian King List"].

What is more, some time before 3000 BC , there was an archaeologically attested river flood in Shuruppak and other Mesopotamian cities. [Ibid].

Against wickedness

We are told in Mesopotamian sources that wickedness on the part of humankind brought the flood: Unnecessary noise from humankind kept the gods awake, says the ancient Atrahasis Epic. The saying, written down on tablets after the Mesopotamian flood, warn against evils of "making waves", by adjusting to community living.

They seek to promote virtue and preserve community standards, However, their virtues and standards are not always like those of a Norwegian. Example. The father king teaches how to get and handle slaves:

You should not have sex with your slave girl (49); not buy a prostitute; not buy a house-born slave; not buy a free man; not buy a palace slave girl. "You should rather bring down a foreign slave from the mountains, or you should bring somebody from a place where he is an alien", - for that brings the least trouble, says the aged father (154-64)

But still there may be difficulties: "When you bring a slave girl from the hills, she brings both good and evil with her. The good is in the hands; the evil is in the heart," the father says. (193-201)

Slavery is evil, no matter what. In ancient Egypt slavery was not part of the social fabric, although there were some exceptions. But nearly two thousand years after the Babylonian instructions, Jehovah of the Old Testament instituted and regulated brutal slavery among his people.

Further, by what is omitted below, the titbits are not fully representative of the ethic of the ancient Babylonians.

Another thing, the ancient counsels hardly exemplify just what they mean by some of their phrases, like "speak improperly". "It can mean this, it can mean that."

"You should not make a young man best man." (32-34) How young is young in up to 36,000 years old royal eyes?

"You should not curse strongly . . . (50)" Swedes are said to swear much, so customary Swedish may be too hard for a delicate British woman visiting them. "Swedes swear also in a dreadful manner, the gentlemen as well as the poor people [Favell 1850:272]" So what is so strong that it is wrong? And compared to what? Do not swear is good counsel by Buddha.

Basically, one should beware of reading current ideas into ancient phrases in more or less tentative translation. In the instructions, many moral precepts are followed by hints of what could come out of transgressing them, consequences like becoming unpopular in the community and victim of slander.

To put it in perspective: The American psychologists Peck and Havighurst, and others after them, have sorted out different moral levels. Some of these ancient Babylonian precept reflect what Peck and Havighurst would call expedient moral, others suggest other-directed moral, and is something irrationally rule-oriented and irrational (3. level), you may wonder. None of these postulated moral levels are the highest, soundest moral level there is. The top level here is the highest, but opinions about what constitutes the highest moral level, differs among theorizers.

  • Utilitarian - Rational altruistic, considerative, having high regard for others.
  • Other directed - conforming
  • Irrational conscientious - rule oriented; extremist
  • Expedient - also self-gratifying, but trying to mask it
  • Amoral - going for self-gratification.

It is like a mountain to climb. [Cf., sv. "Moral Development"]

Some of these precepts are the same as some of the Bible's Ten Commandments, and other sayings are reflected in the biblical Book of Proverbs.


Old Sayings Simplified

First, Some sayings are fragments, with gaps (lacunas) in them. Scholars put (?) in places where they guess what is missing. In other places, where they have no clue, they write several dots, .........., to mark the missing places. It makes for boring reading perhaps.

Given that, some ideas are extracted, boiled down and simplified below, in addition to the direct quotations of a translation. The fuller paragraphs they stem from, are shown by numbers in brackets behind statements. This means that the translated text - with lacunas and many uncertainties - is found in that paragraph.


In those far remote days, nights and years, the wise Shuruppak, the son of Ubara-Tutu, knew how to speak in elaborate words, and instructed his son Ziudsura: [1-13]

Don't make a well in your field: people will cause damage on it for you. [15-17]

Don't place your house next to a public square. [18]

Don't vouch for someone. [19]

Don't let somebody vouch for you [and] despise you. [20]

Don't loiter about where there is a quarrel. [22-27]

Refrain from getting into a quarrel. [Mod]

Stand aside from a quarrel.

Don't steal anything. [28-31]

Don't break into a house: After a thief is caught, he will be a slave.

Don't commit robbery.

You should not cut yourself with an axe.

Don't play around with a married young woman: the slander could be serious. [Mod] [32-34]

Best not to sit alone in a chamber with a married woman. [Mod]

Don't pick a quarrel. [35-38]

You should not disgrace yourself. [35-38]

Don't boast. [Mod]

Don't deliberate for too long . . . [Abr] -- How long is too long?

Don't eat stolen food. [39-41]

Don't speak improperly. [42-43] Rules for proper speech and table manners differ. - TK

Don't scatter your sheep into unknown pastures. [44-46]

Don't travel during the night: it can hide both good and evil. [47]

Don't have sex with your slave girl. [49]

Don't curse strongly: it rebounds on you. [50]

Don't draw up water that you cannot reach. [51-52]

Don't drive away a debtor. [53]

Don't undo the reed fence of the garden, but restore it! [58-59]

You should not use violence (?) [61-62]

Don't commit rape on someone's daughter.

You should never remain in a slanderer's presence. [65-66]

Don't boast in beer halls and breweries like a deceitful man. [67]

In your manhood you should not jump (?) with your hand. [68-72]

Always be on the side of Utu*.

*Utu: The Sumerian sun god of justice and protector of truth, righteousness and travellers. He could see through deceit and duplicity. As Babylonian sun god he was termed Shamash. The sun god's wife was Aya, goddess of light and of the dawn. In Sumer his cult centre was in Larsa, and in later Babylonia also in Sippar in North Babylonia. Utu/Sjamash appears in a wide range of texts from the earliest periods onwards. Hammurabi's Code is said to be inspired by Shamash. - TK

A second time, Shuruppak gave instructions to his son Ziudsura: [76-82]

The artistic mouth may recite words. [Cf. 103-105]

The strong one can escape (?). [110]

The fool [probably] loses something. [111-114]

A weak wife is - seized (?) by fate. [118]

Don't pass judgment when you drink beer. [126]

Don't worry unduly about what leaves the house. [127]

It is with heaven that you multiply your goods. [128-130]

A third time, Shuruppak gave instructions to his son Ziudsura:

Don't buy a prostitute -

Don't buy a house-born slave: he is a herb that makes the stomach sick.

You should not pile up a mountain on another one. [168-169]

The negligent one ruins (?) his family. [177]

The married man is well equipped. [183-188]

When you bring a slave girl from the hills, she brings both good and evil with her. The evil is in the heart. [193-201, abr]

May the boat with the evil sink in the river! May his waterskin split in the desert! . [193-201

A hateful heart destroys a family. [202-203]

Authority, possessions and steadfastness are princely. [204-207 abr]

Don't buy a vicious bull. [213-214]

One appoints (?) a reliable woman for a good household. [215]

A drunkard will drown the harvest.

If taken as a figurative expression, perhaps an ancient image or even idiom, "drown the harvest" makes much sense. The American proverb "A young drunkard, an old pauper", suggests one potential meaning inherent in the instruction. Otherwise, it may be understood in the context of irrigating fields by a river and not being sober enough for the task There are many options. - TK

To get lost is bad for a dog; but terrible for a man. [266-271

These are good instructions given by Shuruppak, the son of Ubaratutu [if they are understood all right by the eminent translator, perhaps interpreted as figurative counsel also, in part.]. Praise be to the lady who completed the great tablets, the maiden Nisaba. [277, 278-80]

The Instructions of Shuruppak, Babylonian Wisdom, Literature  

Favell Lee Mortimer. The Countries of Europe Described. Philadelphia: Appleton and Co., 1850.

Lambert, Wilfred George. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

"Moral Development." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. (June 12, 2014).

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