Like many foundational inventions that we use every day, such as wheels and law codes, the Ancient Sumerians living in Ancient Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilization, created the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the world - the “Kesh Temple Hymn” or “Liturgy to Nintud” and the “Instructions of Shuruppak.” Dating back to around 2600 BC, the ancient works were found written in cuneiform text on clay tablets and reliefs at the Temple Library at Nippur, Tell Abu Salabikh, modern day Iraq.
It was Robert D. Biggs who translated the oldest version of the Kesh Temple Hymn from Tell Abu Salabikh, and he dates this version to ca. 2600 BC based on tablets found in Shuruppak that have a similar date. Radiocarbon dating of samples taken from the version from Tell Abu Salabikh date them at ca 2550-2520 BC. Since the ancient clay tables were found to be incomplete, the Kesh Temple Hymn has been pieced together from a compilation of translated versions of the text. Analytical and Comparative procedures have lead to the assessment of similar tablets, which enables experts to piece together the different versions of the poem and find that there are few variations between them. The versions from the site at Tell Abu Salabikh to the Old Babylonian, written some 8 centuries later, and all the versions in between show miniscule variation, this shows that the scribes copied the texts faithfully, emphasizing the importance of the hymn.
Abu Salabikh, where the oldest surviving pieces of literature were found. Cultural Property Training Resource, Iraq.
The hymn has been found to consist of around 134 lines, divided into eight songs referred to as “houses” or “temples.” The hymn bestows praise on the city of Kesh due to the settlement’s temple being chosen for the “Ekur,” or assembly of the gods. From this praise of the various gods, the Kesh temple gained legitimacy and sanctity in the Ancient Sumerian culture. This in turn gave the city great status for its temple. Along with being a centre of worship, it was also important to the economy of the city. The temple’s administration held vast tracts of land that produced grain, they gave loans, employed citizens, and maintained business records for merchants.
Enlil, Ruler of Gods
The Kesh Temple Hymn is a larger narrative revolving around “Enlil,” the head of the Sumerian gods and god of breath and wind. In the text, there is a description of the temple at Kesh, which is dedicated to the goddess Ninḫursag or Nintu, who was one of the four great gods/goddesses worshipped in Ancient Sumer along with Enlil, An, and Enki. In the hymn, it is explained that Enlil originally gave permission to the citizens of Kesh to build the temple, as well as outlining the parts of the temple in which the various gods lived. The hymn is attributed to “Nisaba,” the goddess of vegetation, writing, and literature. The relationship between Enlil and Nisaba has been liked to that of Yahweh and Moses in the sense that Enlil gave the text of the gods to Nisaba to relay to the humans, thus giving the literature legitimacy.
Within the 134 lines of the poem each “temple” ends with three rhetorical questions discussing the birth of Nintud’s warrior son, Acgi. Lines 1-21 describe and praise Kesh and its temple. Lines 22-40 liken the temple to the moon against the sky containing the life sources of Sumer, the first urban civilization in Ancient Mesopotamia. Lines 45-57 discuss, in metaphors, the temple reaching up to the heavens and descending into the underworld. Lines 58-73 talk about the complexities of the temple and its ownership of a large quantity of oxen and sheep. The rest of the hymn describes the temple of Kesh as well as the backstory of Enlil giving the temple the legitimacy of the gods. The hymn ends with an approach to the temple, an admonition is repeated four times to be both a warning and an invocation of the divine presence within the walls of the temple.
The Kesh Temple Hymn ( UCLA Library )
Were some Bible Stories ‘Borrowed’ from The Hymn?
The Kesh Temple Hymn has been likened to chapter forty-nine of Genesis in the Christian bible. Raymond de Hoop suggested that there are extremely close syntactical and metaphorical parallels in the sayings about Joseph and Judah in the bible compared to Enlil in the hymn. There have been similar parallels drawn regarding the four times repeated admonition in the hymn’s conclusion as compared to the approaching of temples which crucially influenced the development of Jewish and Christian mysticism. Also, as stated above a parallel has been drawn between the relationships of Enlil and Nisaba and that of Yahweh and Moses in that a story for the human race was passed down from supreme being to underling.
Found along side the Kesh Temple Hymn at the site of Tell Abu Salabikh was the cuneiform tablet containing the Instructions of Shuruppak. These instructions are seen as one of the best examples of Ancient Sumerian wisdom literature. It is written as a father, Ubara-Tutu, passing down wisdom to his son, Shuruppak, in the form of counsels presented as proverbs. The wisdom given ranges from simple practicality to upholding morality. From Sumerian annals of the kings, it is clear that Shuruppak was the was the son of Ubara-Tutu in actuality, and he was the last king of Sumer before the great deluge – a flood myth similar to that of Gilgamesh or Noah in the bible.