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Perception in the Sargonic Literary Tradition
Implications of Copied Texts
Near Eastern and Cuneiform Studies, University of Birmingham
research in Ancient Near Eastern Studies centres on Sargon of Akkad (ca. 2340-2284
B.C.) and his grandson Narām-Sîn (ca.
2260-2223 B.C.), two of the greatest of Mesopotamian monarchs, and their legacy,
which flourished until the end of Mesopotamian civilization. It focuses, in
particular, on the role of historical perception in ancient times, and the
evolution and mutation of historical topoi.
Investigating how later peoples in Babylonia and Assyria perceived these kings
can tell us about how they perceived themselves, their past and their cultural
inheritance. Among the sources of the Sargonic literary corpus that are
informative about ancient historical perceptions are legends, chronicles, omens,
personal and royal letters, votive inscriptions, rituals, incantations and late
copies of genuine Sargonic royal inscriptions. This paper will explore some of
the significance of the late copies, and what they suggest about the
copyists’ views of history.
My current doctoral research focuses on a group of
Mesopotamian kings from the second half of the third millennium B.C., who are
usually referred to as the ‘Sargonic Dynasty’ or the ‘Old Akkadian
Dynasty’. Its founder, Sargon of Akkad, as well as his grandson, Narām-Sîn,
became two of the principle protagonists in Mesopotamian literary traditions for
almost two thousand years after the fall of their dynasty. Exemplars of texts
referring to these kings have not only been found in Mesopotamia, but as far
away as Kanesh
and Hattuša in Turkey (see figure 1),
Mari in Syria,
in Iran (see figure 2), and even el-Amarna
in Egypt. In fact, texts alluding to the Sargonic kings have been found in five
different ancient languages: Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite,
and Elamite. It should also be noted
that these are only the editions that have survived. Many more have probably
eluded excavation, or were in fact transmitted orally and never written down in
the first place.
Provenance of the major texts of the Sargonic corpus in northern Iraq and
Provenance of the major texts of the Sargonic corpus in Syria, southern Iraq
The area of my research with which this paper is
concerned is that of copyists and copied texts, and the implications they have
on our understanding of how ancient historiographers perceived their own
history. The practice of copying older textual material was widespread in the
ancient Near East, particularly in the second millennium during the Old
Babylonian period. At this time, a great scholarly interest in the art of
writing, as well as archaic writing forms, seems to have been prevalent in the
scribal schools of Mesopotamia. Commonly found in the cuneiform textual archives
are examples of collections that have been compiled with older, individual texts
from similar genres. For example, we find collections of ancient royal letters
from the third millennium being copied and compiled during the second
millennium. Other examples include chronologies being compiled from ancient year
names, eponyms and lists of rulers known as ‘King Lists’, or didactic texts
being formed from what were already ancient omens.
Probably the most commonly copied genre was that of royal inscription. In fact,
it is to the eager copyists of the Old Babylonian period that we owe much of our
knowledge about the history of the Sargonic dynasty, since many of the original
third millennium inscriptions have disappeared from the archaeological record
(see figure 3).
Figure 3. The Sargonic literary tradition through the years.
prolific practice of copying old and ancient texts continued to flourish into
the first millennium. A good example of a first millennium copy is tablet BM
38302, now housed in the British Museum. This is a Neo-Babylonian copy of a
genuine Sargonic royal inscription, and purports to record an inscription of
King Šar-kali-šarrī, the last king of the Sargonic dynasty.
It is one of those rare copies which can be compared with similar texts from the
third millennium B.C.,
and therefore allows us to determine how faithfully the copyist has followed an
original. In this case, it appears at first glance at least, that he copied an
original text exactly, with the slight addition of a colophon stating that his
source was a stone foundation tablet.
However, there is some room for speculation as to whether the scribe who copied
this inscription did so entirely correctly, because all of the deeds described
in the copy are in fact known to have been accomplished by Šar-kali-šarrī’s
Like Šar-kali-šarrī, Narām-Sîn is recorded as having built the
temple of Aštar, quashed a rebellion and smote the mountain areas from the
‘Lower Sea to the Upper Sea’, as well as reached the sources of the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers.
This has understandably led scholars to wonder
whether some mistake has been made in the first millennium copy.
Douglas Frayne, for example, posed the question whether it is “…possible
that the Neo-Babylonian copyist had a broken original text of Narām-Sîn at
his disposal with the royal name missing and he mistakenly restored the name of
Šar-kali-šarrī in the lacuna?”
If this is the case, it would have some interesting implications on how we today
can interpret the copyist’s view of history. We must question why the copyist
evoked Šar-kali-šarrī’s name as the author of this inscription. The
most probable explanation is that by this late period, about eighteen hundred
years later, the historical facts about the Sargonic dynasty had suffered some
inevitable distortion. After all, the late Neo-Babylonian historiographers would
have been relying on much of the same patchy evidence as we do today, some of
which would have been copies themselves. If copyists took it upon themselves to
restore broken copies of texts which may have already been restored to some
extent, it is easy to see how the historical traditions could evolve and result
in a tenuous understanding of Sargonic chronology, as well as an unsystematic
grasp of what each king had achieved, and when. As further support for this
theory, I will mention three other instances where confusion between the
tradition of Sargon and the tradition of Narām-Sîn has occurred in the
literary corpus: firstly, in a text known as the Sumerian Kinglist, both Sargon and Narām-Sîn are credited with
a lengthy reign of 56 years each, when it is clear that the total number of
years for the dynasty can support only one reign of this length;
secondly, in a fake royal inscription often dubbed the Sargon Parody,
Sargon is described as having shaved the heads of his enemies, a literary topos
which was originally associated only with Narām-Sîn’s treatment of his
and thirdly, also in the Sargon Parody,
Sargon’s name is written with the cuneiform sign that denotes a deity, but in
the genuine royal inscriptions it was, in fact, Narām-Sîn who had his name
written as though he were a god.
Returning to BM 38302, it is clear that the first
millennium copyist had a very deliberate concern with the past. His copy is
exact, and even if he has restored it incorrectly it seems as if he has done so
only mistakenly. There is no evidence that he has tried to manipulate the text
to suit any purpose of his own. Therefore we may conclude that the copyist saw
an intrinsic value in preserving the past. His aim was to create a record of
Babylonian history so that it would not be forgotten in future generations,
considering that the time about which he was concerned was nearly two millennia
old. It would be incredible to think that the great antiquity of the Sargonic
period of history did not impress ancient scribes and scholars, particularly
when it was perceived as their
history, the history of their land and their culture.
Another good example of the complexity of copied
texts can be found in The Cruciform
Monument of Maništūšu,
which is known from four manuscript sources differing to varying degrees (see
figure 3 for a chronological overview):
Unlike BM 38302, The
Cruciform Monument of Maništūšu is not a genuine like-for-like copy
of a Sargonic royal inscription. As early as 1937, doubts were expressed about
its authenticity, and it is now certain that CM (and its ‘copy’ IM) is, in
fact, a forgery. As well as its many epigraphical, philological and material
anachronisms, Sollberger has noted its many “mistakes which are not
anachronisms but merely the result of the scribe’s overreaching himself in his
efforts to compose an ‘archaic’ text”.
To deliberately archaise a text is, of course, one of the clearest indications
of an author’s intentions. His concern is not, as was the case with BM 38302,
to create a reliable historical record. His attitude to ‘history’ is not a
purist attempt at documentation, but one with agenda. To archaise an inscription
is an attempt to improve its trustworthiness, which, ipso
facto, brings into question its authenticity. It is now well accepted that
the text was:
fraus pia perpetrated sometime in the
to establish the great antiquity of some privileges and revenues of the E-babbar
at Sippar, thereby strengthening the temple’s claims to them”.
Monument of Maništūšu,
despite its telltale anachronisms, is in fact a surprisingly convincing and
resourceful forgery due to the fact that it appears to have been based on
genuine historical material: text BM.
Sollberger, due to the fact that Si contains none of the mistakes and
anachronisms exhibited by CM and IM, was even able to identify the order in
which The Cruciform Monument of Maništūšu
came into existence:
is a word-for-word duplicate of CM, but is it a mere copy of it? …Si shows
none of the archaisms or pseudo-archaisms of CM: it is written in ‘correct’
Neo-Babylonian. ...Si, far from being a copy of CM, is the original text
composed by officials of the E-babbar for a scribe to turn into the ‘antique
document’ they needed to reinforce their claims.”
the evolution of the text was as follows:
We are therefore very fortunate, since it is rare in
the Sargonic literary corpus that the intentions of the forger can be so easily
discerned. Studies of other pseudo-biographical or pseudo-autobiographical
texts, such as the Sargon Parody and
the Sargon Birth Legend, are yet to
reach a consensus about their authors’ intentions and perceptions of history.
To conclude, only by comparing copies of texts to their originals in this way can we begin to discern what were the attitudes of their authors towards the writing of history. We can begin to see how the Babylonians and Assyrians conceptualised their past, as well as what they considered to be a legitimate way in which to manifest it in writing. It is evident that for some authors, such as the author of BM 38302, the process of writing history was based on nothing more than the will to preserve ancient manuscripts. For others, such as the author of BM 91022, the writing of history was a process linked to other important factors such as intellectual, political or religious motivations. There are still countless unpublished cuneiform tablets around the world that are copies of older inscriptions. In the British Museum alone there are numerous that are in need of collating, ranging from copies of omens, astrological texts, economic texts, medical texts, literary texts, ritual texts, and of course, historical inscriptions. I am currently photographing and collating for my thesis many of these copies. Some of them are not as exact copies as the Neo-Babylonian copies discussed here, and in time I will study the palaeography and philology of these texts in order to try to determine whether a deliberately archaic script has been utilised in order to make them appear as though they were genuine or, at least, very antique inscriptions.
Al-Rawi, F. N. H. and George, A. R. 1994. ‘Tablets
from the Sippar library III. Two royal counterfeits’, Iraq
G. 1983. Mesopotamians and Mesopotamian learning at Ńattuša,
Journal of Cuneiform Studies 35: 97-114.
Birot, M. 1980. ‘Fragment de Rituel de Mari
Relatif au kispum’. In B. Alster (ed.), Death in
Mesopotamia. Copenhagen, 139-150.
Cooper, J. S. 1983. The Curse of Agade. Baltimore and London.
Dercksen, J. G. 2001 (4).
‘The king that walked in darkness’, Nouvelles
Assyriologiques Brčves et Utilitaires.
Foster, B. 2002 (4). ‘The
Sargon parody’, Nouvelles
Assyriologiques Brčves et Utilitaires, 79-80.
D. 1984. ‘Notes on a new inscription of Šar-kali-šarrī’,
Annual Review of the
Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project 2,
Frayne, D. 1993. Sargonic and Gutian Periods. Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Early
Periods, Volume 2. Toronto and London.
Gelb, I. J. 1949. ‘The
date of the Cruciform Monument of Maništušu’, Journal
of Near Eastern Studies 8, 346-348.
Glassner, J-J. 2004. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta,
Gough, M.A. 2005. The old Assyrian Sargon Parody in its literary and historical contexts. Unpublished MPhil Thesis. University of Birmingham
Grayson, A. K. 1987. Assyrian Rulers of the Third and Second Millennia BC (to 115 BC).
Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Assyrian Periods, Volume 1. Toronto and
Günbattı, C. 1997.
‘Kültepe’den Akadli Sargon’a Ậit Bir Tablet’, Archivum
Anatolicum 3, 152-155.
Güterbock, H.G. 1964.
‘Sargon of Akkad mentioned by Hattušili of Hatti’, Journal
of Cuneiform Studies 18, 1-6.
Güterbock, H. G. 1969. Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 101, 14-26.
Hecker, K. 2001. ‘Ein
Selbstpreis Sargons’. In Texte aus der
Umwelt des Alten Testaments: Ergänzungslieferung. Gütersloh, 58-60.
W. 1967. ‘Elams Vertrag mit Narām-Sîn von Akkade’, Zeitschrift für
Assyriologie 58: 66-96.
Jacobsen, Th. 1939. The Sumerian Kinglist. Chicago.
Lewis, B. 1980. The Sargon Legend. American Schools of Oriental Research. Cambridge,
S. de. 1993. ‘KUB XXVII 38: Ein Beispiel Kultureller und Linguistischer Überlagerung
in einem Text aus dem Archiv von Boğazköy’, Studi Micenei ed
Egeo-Anatolici 31: 121-134.
E. 1968. ‘The Cruciform Monument’, Jaarbericht
van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap “Ex Oriente Lux”
E. 1982. ‘A new inscription of Šar-kali-šarrī’.
In M. Dandamayev et al. (eds.), Societies
and Languages of the Ancient Near East: studies in honour of I. M. Diakonoff.
Van de Mieroop, M. 2000.
‘Sargon of Agade and his successors in Anatolia’, Studi
Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici 42, 146-159.
Westenholz, J. G. 1992.
‘Oral traditions and written texts in the cycle of Akkade’. In M. Vogelzang
and H. Vanstiphout (eds.), Mesopotamian
Epic Literature: Oral or Aural? New York, 123-154.
J. G. 1997. Legends of the Kings of Akkade. Indiana, 280-293.
G. 2003. ‘König Silber und König Ńidam’.
In G. Beckman, R. Beal and G. McMahon (eds.), Hittite
Studies in Honor of Harry A. Hoffner Jr. on the Occasion of His 65th
An unusual Old Assyrian text from Kanesh, which was dealt with in this
author’s 2005 MPhil dissertation (unpublished), is written in a
pseudo-biographical style. For a photograph and copy of the tablet see Günbattı
1997, 152-155. See Van de Mieroop 2000, 146-159 for an English translation,
and Hecker 2001, 58-60 for a translation in German. For studies of the text
see Dercksen 2001, as well as Foster 2002, 79-80, who treats the text as a
For the latest treatment of an Akkadian Sargonic text from Hattuša see
Westenholz 1997, 280-293.
See Birot 1980, 139-150, for a
translation, copy and study of the Akkadian text Mari 12803, which mentions
funerary offerings made to the ‘divine statues’ of Sargon and Narām-Sîn.
According to Cooper 1983,
67-71, a manuscript of the Sumerian legend The Curse of Agade, museum number Sb 12364 + 14154, comes from Susa.
See also Hinz 1967, 66-69, for a treaty between Narām-Sîn and an
unknown Elamite ruler.
The el-Amarna exemplar of the King of
Battle legend appears to have been written in a western peripheral
dialect of Akkadian: see Westenholz 1997, 102-133.
For a Hittite version of the Sargon legend King of Battle see Güterbock
1969, 14-26. Reference to
Sargon is also made in the bilingual annals of Hattusili I: see Güterbock
For a Hurrian ritual which
mentions Sargon see Beckman 1983, 101-103, de Martino 1993, 121-134 and
Wilhelm 2003, 393-395.
 Hinz 1967, 66-69.
For a study of oral traditions
in Akkadian literature with emphasis on the Sargonic legends see Westenholz
A more comprehensive review of
the different types of copies and a bibliography can be found in Glassner
For the royal inscriptions of
the Sargonic dynasty, originals and copies, see Frayne 1993.
Sollberger 1982, 345-348; Frayne
1984, 23-27; and Frayne 1993, 192-194.
See Frayne 1984, 23 for a list
of tablet numbers and publication details of the Old Akkadian exemplars.
Frayne 1984, 24: ‘According
to a narua of marńuša
stone.’ See also Frayne 1984, 25 for an argument for reading ‘foundation
tablet’ instead of ‘stele’.
Displaying the strongest
similarities to BM 38302 are two Narām-Sîn inscriptions: Frayne 1993,
137-140. Compare, for example:
BM 38302 “Šar-kali-šarrī,
the mighty, king of Akkad, builder of the … of the temple of the goddess
Inanna in Zabala. When the four quarters together had been subdued, then,
from beyond the Lower Sea even unto the Upper Sea, he smote for Enlil the
peoples and the mountains in their totality, and he turned their cities into
heaps of rubble. Before Enlil, Šar-kali-šarrī, the mighty, in
punishing the evil (enemies) of
Enlil in fierce battles, shows no mercy to anyone” (after Sollberger
1982, 347: 1-44) with the Old Akkadian diorite foundation tablet “Narām-Sîn,
the mighty, king of Akkad, builder of the … of the temple of the goddess
Inanna in Zabala. When the four quarters together revolted against him, from
beyond the Lower Sea as far as the Upper Sea he smote the people and all the
Mountain Lands for the god Enlil, and brought their kings in fetters before
the god Enlil” (after Frayne 1993, 138: 1-43).
For the reaching of the river
sources see Frayne 1993, 140.
As first noted by Sollberger 1982, 345-346.
Frayne 1984, 25.
Jacobsen 1939; “…since
Jacobsen has shown that the two figures of 56 years cannot be accommodated
by the dynastic totals for the Akkadian dynasty, there must have been a
confusion in the tradition here” (Frayne 1993, 84).
See note 1.
Frayne 1993, 105.
That is, of course, unless the Sargon
Parody reflects in some way the use of the divine determinative used by
another king named Sargon (usually referred to as Sargon I in order to
distinguish him from the Neo-Assyrian ruler Sargon II) who reigned during
the Old Assyrian period. Almost nothing is known about Sargon I. For his
royal inscriptions see Grayson 1987.
For a comprehensive study,
photograph, translation and bibliography on previous studies of The
Cruciform Monument see Sollberger 1968, 50-70. The most recently
discovered manuscript was published by Al-Rawi and George 1994, 139-148.
Sollberger 1968, 52.
Sollberger 1968, 51.
 For evidence that the fraud was already committed this early see Sollberger’s list of ‘material anachronisms’, 1968, 50-51.
Sollberger 1968, 50, discussing
this now accepted interpretation first concluded by Gelb 1949, 346-348.
Sollberger writes, “…it is probably because of the availability of a
Man-iśtūśu text that the dotation was attributed to that king
rather than to his much more famous successor, Narām-Suen” (Sollberger
 Sollberger 1968, 52.
It has been argued, for example, that the
Sargon Parody was intended as a
parody of the Sargonic literary tradition: see Foster 2002, 79-80. Whilst I
am wholly in agreement with this interpretation, and have argued in its
favour in my MPhil dissertation (unpublished), it is not universally
accepted (see, for example, Hecker 2001, 58-60). The ‘purpose’ of The
Sargon Birth Legend has received much study in Lewis, 1980.