On “INVENTION OF WRITING” issue


Excerpts from:                                                                                                                                      Selected Papers of Beijing Forum 2004 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042810012449

The Sumerian Account of the Invention of Writing —A New Interpretation                                                                                                      Gong Yushu Professor für Assyriology, Oriental Literature Research Centre / Dept. of Oriental Studies, Foreign Languages School, Peking University

“The invention of writing is something that fascinate not only modern scholars, but also their ancient counterparts. Almost all ancient people with a written history have their own accounts of the invention of writing. These accounts, embedded in their literature, reflect the annotations they could give on the origin of their own writing systems. These accounts are written forms of oral traditions, the beginning of which is lost in the darkness of history. The written forms of the accounts of the invention of writing usually came into existence several hundred years, or more, after the invention, at a time when the writing system had become capable of such an account. In the case of Mesopotamia, the earliest known account pertaining to the invention of writing which is usually interpreted as “the Sumerian account of the invention of writing” dates back to the Ur III (2112-2004 B.C.) period, was a millennium apart from the earliest evidence of the proto-cuneiform writing from Uruk. The Sumerian narrative poem (also called epic) containing such an account is known among modern scholars as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, first transliterated and translated into English and made available to the public by S.N.Kramer in 1943. ………….

According to the poem, Enmerkar, the second ruler of the First Dynasty of Uruk, sent a messenger to Aratta, a remote city separated from Uruk by seven great mountains, demanding that the people of Aratta bring gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and many other precious stones, and build for him various shrines and temples, particularly the Abzutemple in Eridu (lines 3364). ………….

Following the advice of Inanna, the protective deity of his city, Enmerkar selected an eloquent messenger and sent him to Aratta to deliver his demand and threat by repeating what he said to him verbatim. Refusing to submit, the Lord of Aratta raised each time a prerequisite condition for his subjugation that seemed impossible to meet. The messenger had to go back and forth playing the role of the verbal transmitter between the two kings. However, as the battle of words became more fierce and the content of the messages more complicated, the messenger became linguistically overwhelmed.                        ………………                                                                                                             The messenger, whose mouth was heavy, was not able to repeat it. (502) Because the messenger, whose mouth was heavy, was not able to repeat it, (503) the Lord of Kulaba patted some clay and wrote the message like (on) a tablet. (504) Previously, the writing of messages on clay did not exist. (505) Now, under that sun and on that day, it indeed so exist. (506) The Lord of Kulaba wrote the message like on a tablet. It was indeed so.” This passage is generally regarded as the Sumerian account of the invention of writing and the writing medium clay tablet, and Enmerkar as their inventor. In the words of Komoroczy: “It is clear, that the author of the epic here intended to describe the invention of clay tablet (viz. the Mesopotamian writing material) and the writing on it (viz. the cuneiform writing);…In the eyes of the author, Enmerkar is the inventor of the indigenous writing.”

First, although it is stated explicitly in this composition that the Lord of Kulaba patted some clay and wrote the message-like on a tablet and that the writing of messages on clay did not exist formerly, it is not stated here that the writing of messages on media other than clay tablet (DUB, IM) did not exist. This may imply that in the mind of the Sumerians the writing of messages on other medium had been in existence prior to the events described in this composition including writing message on clay by Enmerkar took place  …………..

Second, it is clearly stated in the following passage of the same composition that the Lord of Aratta could read and understand what was written on the tablet handed over to him by the messenger from Uruk.        ….……….                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           O Lord of Aratta, after you have examined the clay tablet, after you have learned the content of the message, (525) say whatever you will say to me” …………….

Otherwise it would be hard to imagine, how the Lord of Aratta could read and understand the written message on clay that was just invented. Third, there is still a passage that may be taken as evidence that the Lord of Aratta understood the written message on clay presented to him by the messenger of Enmerkar, his powerful challenger.  .………..

After he had spoken thus to him, (537538) the Lord of Aratta received his kiln-fired tablet from the messenger. (539) The Lord of Aratta looked at the tablet. (540) The spoken words were just nails, and his brow was full of anger. (541) The Lord of Aratta looked at his kiln-fired tablet.” The crucial message of this passage lies in line 540 which is, however, subject to different interpretations. Kramer translated this line as follows: “The commanded word is nail-like, the appearance is …” and commented further:                 This line “seems to describe the appearance of the written signs; on the other hand, it may perhaps describe in some way the Lord of Aratta’s despondency upon reading its contents.” This supposition presupposes that the Lord of Aratta understood the content of the written message he was looking at. Jacobsen agreed apparently with the supposition made by Kramer. His translation is “The words were fierce words, were frowning.” The Lord of  Aratta was frowning, because “the words were fierce words.” It is no question here that Jacobsen meant that the Lord of Aratta understood the content of the written message. The latest attempt to interpret this line is made by Glassner who allies himself with Jacobsen in opinion,xvii but differs from him slightly in wording: “The word spoken was the nail is inserted’, it was an imperious command.” For Komoroczy it is no doubt that “der Herr von Aratta die Note Enmerkars richtig verstanden hat.”  ……………                                                                                                                  as for his interpretation “The Lord of Aratta sees only nails where he had expected words. He is angry or depressed, however hard he keeps looking, it is hard for us to imagine how could the Lord of Aratta have “expected words” by not being reluctant to see the “nails.” Since Sumerian “words” can only be expressed by “nails,” the rudemental elements of the Sumerian (cuneiform) script, we must in fact pose the question, how could he not expect to see “nails,” if he had expected to see “words”?                                   Reading Sumerian is nothing but fingering out words from the interwoven “nails.” It is as true of the past as of the present. In other word, the assumption that the Lord of Aratta could not understand the message written by Enmerkar cannot be borne out by the text, however logical it may sound.  …………………                                                             In this sense, what Enmerkar did should not be regarded as the invention of writing, but as the initial transformation of the writing medium, from a certain material to clay. Furthermore, as we have seen from the argument we made above, that the Lord of Aratta did understand the message on clay written by Enmerkar has also textual support, and the literacy, or the ability, of the Lord of Aratta to understand the written message leads logically to the conclusion that writing on materials other than clay had already been in existence prior to Enmerkar’s “invention” of writing on clay.                         That is the point of this “Sumerian account of the invention of writing”! This conclusion, borne out by the text, can also be supported by the following facts and observations…………..                                                                                                                      (2) Some signs of the proto-cuneiform writing from Uruk do not seem to be the original invention on clay, but borrowings of signs already in existence on materials other than clay. The head of some animals such as donkey (ANŠE), ibex (DARA3), and ox (GIR3). and some other signs made up of curves and circles such as IDIGNA (a kind of bird), NAM (swallow) and even LAGAB (a circle depicting a kind of enclosure) and its incorporated derivatives which were difficult to draw on clay, may be taken as such examples.                                                                                                                                             (3) The proto-cuneiform writing system from Uruk displays such a high degree of complexity, stability and conventionality that it does not seem to represent the earliest stage of writing. This has already led many scholars to believe that the proto-cuneiform writing from Uruk represents a mature writing system, the beginning of which is lost in the darkness of prehistory. Unfortunately, traces of such an assumed earlier stage have not yet been discovered, so that “whether the pre-Uruk writing was on clay or perishable materials, took place in Uruk or elsewhere, and was used for sacred or economic purposes, we have no way of knowing.” But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.                                                                                                                     (4) Recently, Whittaker has propounded a theory about the origin of the proto-cuneiform writing that deserves our attention. He proposes that certain signs of the proto-cuneiform writing such as GIRI3 “foot” (sign-form is the picture of an ox’s head in profile) and GURUŠ “young, able-bodied worker” (sign-form is the picture of a vehicle in profile) might have been of Proto-Indo-European origin.

Image from  https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTsstxV_ujijPUgIfQMe7hpKIBufUot1XBnkplXI52CXV3Ag0PX9w

2.Possible PIE-Pictograms Proposed by Whittaker

The Sumerians borrowed them and adapted them for their own use on the basis of the phonetic similarities, that is, similarities between the pronunciations of the words they stood for in the Proto-Indo-European script and those for which they were to stand in the Sumerian.                                                                                                                                                To be sure, his evidence so far lies entirely in the area of comparative linguistics and has not yet been favoured by archaeological substantiation, and his interpretation of the proto-cuneiform text W 16632,b of the Uruk IV in Proto-Indo-European is less convincing. But the direction of his thought is interesting. It coincides, to some extent, with the direction of thought which the Sumerian account of the invention of writing leads us to, that is, before the Sumerian invention of clay tablets, writing materials other than clay might have been in existence. Briefly stated, the passages we quoted above from the Sumerian epic composition Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta suggest that writing on materials other than clay was already in existence in southern Mesopotamia prior to the point when Enmerkar wrote the message on clay, and that Enmerkar was not the one who invented writing for the first time, but the one who transformed writing already in existence from a material that remains unmentioned in the text to clay, and that the transformation of the writing medium had its subsequent effect on the appearance of the signs. Furthermore, we see an explicit hint in them that the Sumerians ascribed the transformation of the writing  medium to man, while the invention of writing to gods, as is the case of another Sumerian literary composition known as Inanna and Enki.    We know for certain that the earliest evidence of the proto-cuneiform writing on clay tablet comes from Uruk IV, at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. (ca. 3200 B.C.), a time when the transformation of the writing medium described in our literary composition Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, must have taken place.          According to the Sumerian Kinglist, Enmerkar is the second ruler of the First Dynasty of Uruk,  who is assigned by most chronologies to the Early Dynastic II period, several hundred years later than the earliest evidence of the protocuneiform texts on clay from Uruk IV.

 

 

 

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