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Ancient Sumerian text
The literature of the ancient Sumerians, who inhabited what is now southern Iraq 5000-4000 years ago, is among the world's oldest and most beautiful. Sumerian texts are written in the cuneiform script, a form of mixed phonetic and pictographic writing widely used in the ancient Near East, and were often inscribed on clay tablets, hundreds of thousands of which have been recovered by modern archaeologists. Dr Christopher Metcalf, Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Queen's, has just published the first edition of a particularly remarkable work of Sumerian literature, in collaboration with Dr Marie-Christine Ludwig of SOAS, University of London.

This text was composed in about 2000 BC and contains a highly lyrical poem on the relationship between an historical ruler of ancient Mesopotamia, king Ishme-Dagan of Isin, and the most powerful goddess of the Sumerian pantheon, Innana. Sumerian kingship was underpinned by a peculiar concept according to which the king took part in an annual wedding ceremony with the goddess. In this act, the king was identified with Innana's mythological husband, who was known as the shepherd Dumuzi. The new poem is so far unique in that it describes the initial failure of the marriage between king and goddess: king Ishme-Dagan spends many verses lamenting Innana's refusal to join him on the 'bed of the crescent moon', where their union was due to take place, and complains that she has instead made him 'fly away, like a dove from its nook': indeed, so severe is her punishment that the king speaks of 'the grievous whip and goad' that she has applied to his back. The reason for this divine anger is an unspecified sin that the king has committed, and which he describes as being 'seven times seven', that is to say, very great (the phrase has Biblical echoes). In the end, another god intercedes and pacifies Innana, who grants the king a male heir and agrees to avert the 'evil eye' from him in future; once reconciled, the goddess also 'bandaged the places where the whip had fiercely struck'. 

As Dr Metcalf and Dr Ludwig explain in their edition, the poem has a rich mythological and ritual background. Many Sumerian myths narrate how Innana's husband Dumuzi attracted the wrath of his wife, and how she proceeded to take revenge in various ways - we can see now, for the first time, that the motif of Innana's punishment of her husband applied not only to her mythological husband Dumuzi, but also to a real-life king like Ishme-Dagan. This may seem surprising, since ancient kings (like modern autocrats) did not usually allow themselves to be portrayed in an unfavourable light, as is the case in this poem, but here the ritual aspect becomes important: we know from other sources that ancient Mesopotamian kings took part in religious rites in which they were ritually humiliated in front of the gods in order to atone for their sins, and this new poem is no doubt an early, literary illustration of this ancient religious practice: the key point is that the anger and suffering always leads to reconciliation in the end. Seen in this light, Metcalf and Ludwig write, 'the description of king Ishme-Dagan’s toils is a display of his all-enduring piety, and the elaborate account of his suffering perhaps already contains the implied promise of his eventual relief.'

The tablet on which the poem is inscribed has belonged to the collections of the British Museum for nearly one hundred years. It is remarkable that such a beautifully written text has remained unpublished for so long - the reason is no doubt a combination of the philological difficulty of the text, its unusual content, and the fact that it is written in very small characters: the tablet measures only ca. 13 x 4.5 cm, but contains 123 verses of poetry. Dr Ludwig, an expert on Sumerian who has studied the British Museum's collections for many years, brought the text to Dr Metcalf's attention in 2013, when the latter worked at SOAS and was seeking to gain experience in deciphering unpublished Sumerian literary texts. Their resulting joint edition has just appeared (in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 2017; 107[1]: 1–21), and Dr Metcalf hopes that it will form a worthy addition to the long tradition of epigraphic research at Queen's, which was once the home of the pioneering cuneiform scholar Archibald Sayce (1845-1933), and where today Fellows with epigraphic interests in a broad range of areas collaborate in the Workshop for Manuscript and Text Cultures (WMTC).