Remembrance Day
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Categories: Ancient, Modern, Not an expert

Remembrance Day

War is a very old and very common custom, and so are commemorating it, celebrating it, and praying it away. Others more learned than I have commented on the war which was raging in Europe one hundred years ago. Today I thought I would share two perspectives on war from four thousand years ago.

Shulgi was one of the kings of Ur at the end of the third millennium BCE, and he had a particular interest in literature. A number of poems boasting his prowess were circulated under his name, and they became such popular school texts that a few copies survived to be excavated. In some of them he describes his prowess as a warrior:

I, Šulgi the king ……, who cares for holy An, …… food offerings, who constantly attends upon Enlil ……, Nanna, …… the office of en; Ninurta, the ensi appointed by Enlil, has given me a club and a battle-mace from the E-šu-me-ša. Not since the seed of mankind was germinated, has Enlil ever before been able to give the sceptre of kingship to a king who could control the troops single-handed. As a lone donkey stallion, one who resists the weapons — no king of the Land has ever turned against the weapons.

I did not lie in ambush, like a fierce cheetah, against the rebel and hostile lands, the aggressive foreign lands, in order to establish my renown as far as the horizon with the power of my master Enlil, and to transmit my lasting fame of victories to the distant future. I did not come out of a hole like a scorpion. Instead I left my main forces at my side, and went ahead of my scouts. As I repelled the tribal Gutians, the bandits of the hills, like a …… snake I made my fearsomeness reach afar.

No one can get near my inspired troops. Running quite alone into the foreign lands unknown to him, like a lion that has seized a wild cow in its claws, I tear its flesh apart. Like a solitary dragon I spread fear, as I proceed unflaggingly against the civilised towns and make them quiver like flames (?) at my frightful roaring. Spine-chilling yells and raging flames are cast at the hills.

For the rebel lands, the illiterate (?) ones that carry no emblems, my warfare is a horizon on which there are clouds, enveloping the twilight in fear. The mountains, where the forests do not grow as thick as thornbushes, where in the cult places of the rites of Inana (i.e. in battle) throw-stick and shield do not tumble to the earth in a great storm, where the combatants take no rest in the insistent bitterness of the fierce battle, where life-fluid and blood from both scoundrel and honest person ……, where no black ewes trek over the mountains like floating clouds, and corpses in reedbeds and crannies ……

1 line unclear

The desert scorpion shall no longer behave thus ……. Neither shortly nor in the future shall he rise again. A villain and rebel …… to the weapons of strength. A path that is confused, a way that is cut off like a ……. I bent low the land of the Gutians like a mubum tree, and the land turned its heart in its fear before me, as I put my foot on its neck. I am he who all alone plunders cities with his own strength. I am the strong one who is praised for his weapons. I am he whose lasting name and prayerful words are as tremendous as ……. I am the just and the benefactor in the Land.

Shulgi hymn E lines 190-239

Shulgi’s line failed, as all dynasties do, and with it his city. After the invaders had left the rulers of the strongest surviving city in Sumeria, Isin, sponsored a poem to commemorate the disaster and justify their position as the new rulers of Ur. Most of the known copies are a few hundred years later, from the Old Babylonian period. Piotr Michalowski suggests that it was meant as a timeless invocation of the emotions which accompanied the fall of a city, not a precise description of any one event:

The trees of Urim were sick, its reeds were sick. Laments sounded all along its city wall. Daily there was slaughter before it. Large axes were sharpened in front of Urim. The spears, the arms of battle, were prepared. The large bows, throw-sticks and shields gathered together to strike. The barbed arrows covered its outer side like a raining cloud. Large stones fell toegether with great thuds. {(1 ms. adds 1 line:) Daily the evil wind returned in the city.} Urim, confident in its own strength, stood ready for the murderers. Its people, oppressed by the enemy, could not withstand their weapons.

In the city, those who had not been felled by weapons succumbed to hunger. Hunger filled the city like water, it would not cease. This hunger contorted people’s faces, twisted their muscles. Its people were as if drowning in a pond, they gasped for breath. Its king breathed heavily in his own palace. Its people dropped their weapons, their weapons hit the ground. They struck their necks with their hands and cried. They sought counsel with each other, they searched for clarification: “Alas, what can we say about it? What more can we add to it? How long until we are finished off by this catastrophe? Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.”

The people took refuge (?) behind the city walls. They were united in fear. {The palace that was destroyed by onrushing water was defiled, its doorbolts were torn out}{(1 ms. has instead:) At its main gate the bolts were opened, the storm disloged its door}. Elam, like a swelling flood wave, left (?) only the ghosts. In Urim weapons smashed heads like clay pots. Its refugees were unable to flee, they were trapped inside the walls. {(1 ms. adds 3 lines:) Like fish living in a pond, they tried to escape. The enemy seized the E-kiš-nu-ĝal of Nanna. They ripped out its heavy …….} The statues that were in the shrine were cut down. The great stewardess Ninigara ran away from the storehouse. Its throne was cast down before it, she threw herself down into the dust.

Its mighty cows with shining horns were captured, their horns were cut off. Its unblemished oxen and grass-fed sheep were slaughtered. {(1 ms. adds 1 line:) They were cut down as date palms and were tied together.} The palm-trees, strong as mighty copper, the heroic strength, were torn out like rushes, were plucked like rushes, their trunks were turned sideways. Their tops lay in the dust, there was no one to raise them. The midribs of their palm fronds were cut off and their tops were burnt off. Their date spadices that used to fall (?) on the well were torn out. The fertile reeds, which grew in the sacred ……, were defiled. The great tribute that they had collected was hauled off to the mountains.

The house’s great door ornament fell down, its parapet was destroyed. The wild animals that were intertwined on its left and right lay before it like heroes smitten by heroes. Its gaping-mouthed dragons and its awe-inspiring lions were pulled down with ropes like captured wild bulls and carried off to enemy territory. The fragrance of the sacred seat of Nanna, formerly like a fragrant cedar grove, was destroyed. {(1 ms. adds 1 line:) Its architrave …… gold and lapis lazuli.} The glory of the house, whose glory was once so lovely, was extinguished. Like a storm that fills all the lands, it was built there like twilight in the heavens; its doors adorned with the heavenly stars, its ……. Great bronze latches …… were torn out. Its hinges ……. Together with its door fittings it (?) wept bitterly like a fugitive. The bolt, the holy lock and the great door were not fastened for it. The noise of the door being fastened had ceased; there was no one to fasten it. The …… and was put out in the square.

The food offerings …… of his royal dining place were altered. In its sacred place (?) the tigi, šem and ala instruments did not sound. Its mighty tigi …… did not perform its sacred song. There was no eloquence in the Dubla-maḫ, the place where oaths used to be taken. The throne was not set up at its place of judgment, justice was not administered. Alamuš threw down his sceptre, his hands trembling. In the sacred bedchamber of Nanna musicians no longer played the balaĝ drum. The sacred box that no one had set eyes upon was seen by the enemy. The divine bed was not set up, it was not spread with clean hay. The statues that were in the shrine were cut down. The cook, the dream interpreter, and the seal keeper did not perform the ceremonies properly. They stood by submissively and were carried off by the foreigners. The priests of the holy uzga shrine and the sacred lustrations, the linen-clad priests, forsook the divine plans and sacred divine powers, they went off to a foreign city.

The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 379-448

Further Reading: Piotr Michalowski, The Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur (Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, 1989)

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