ARCHEOLOGY: Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Edmund I. Gordon

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  • Book Reviews 64 1

    and placed the report in the hands of more of the scholars for whom it is intended. In view of the fundamental inadequacy of the excavations, as continually pointed out by the authors themselves, such condensation was certainly called for.

    In spite of all these limitations and criticisms, produced by the passage of time, the growth of publication costs, the pressure of other duties, etc., the Braidwoods may still be congratulated on persisting in their efforts to produce a public record of these early excavations. In a day when administrations are reluctant to sponsor the publication of noncurrent research, this itself is an achievement of note. As a measure of the progress which has occurred in a quarter of a century the report is most revealing. The Braid- woods most recent field work shows in no uncertain terms the revolution the study of prehistory has undergone in those years. The mass of material now published lights the dawn of a new day of which the Amuq was one of the early hours.

    Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. EDMUND I. GORDON. A chapter by THORKILD JACOBSEN. (Museum Monographs.) Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1959. xxvi, 556 pp., bibliogra- phy, glossary, 79 plates. $7.50.

    Reviewed by ARCHER TAYLOR, University o j California, Berkeley Doctor Gordon has here made available 2 large collections of Sumerian proverbs

    from the 16 known to him. He has already published some smaller collections. Although there are many difficulties yet to be resolved in interpreting the texts and many lacunae to be filled, we have a generous number of the earliest proverbs to be committed to writing. The edition is noteworthy for an excellent Cultural AnFlysis (pp. 28.5-323), in which the texts are categorized under such headings as environment, economic life, social status and social institutions, religious beliefs and institutions, education (includ- ing fine arts and recreation), the individual (including references to physiological and psychological allusions and the relations of the individual to society and other individ- uals), and abstract ideas. Such emphasis on the cultural and social background of the texts is not frequent in the editing of proverbs and makes this collection especially valuable. The notes to particular texts make occasional comment on stylistic features, but there is no general historico-critical summary of this aspect. They also include some helpful parallels in other languages. Perhaps the most interesting and curious stylistic detail found in these proverbs is the use of two dialects, one standard Sumerian and the other a language used by women and priests. I cannot cite a parallel to it. English and other languages preserve in proverbs words and idioms lost to ordinary speech, but do not, so far as I recall, employ substandard or nonstandard language in proverbs. Dr. Gordon has presented these difficult texts well and has given a commentary that makes social and cultural studies easy.

    He finds the world described in these proverbs simpler than the world we know the Sumerians to have lived in: It is perhaps noteworthy that neither of these proverb collections contains a single reference to the weaver, the goldsmith (/silversmith), basket-maker, seal-cutter, or other important arts of the time (p. 293). There is, to be sure, a possible reference to the weaver, one of the lowliest crafts in ancient Meso- potamia. The lack of such references is, however, just what we find in modern Euro- pean proverbs. References to the printer, the locomotive engineer, the electrician, or the plumber are scarcely to be found. An explanation is to be sought in the fact that the tricks of the trade are not common property and are therefore not suited to allusive use in proverbs. The peculiarities of a horse are, or a t least they were not long ago,

  • 642 American Anthropologist [63, 19611

    familiar to all; those of an automobile are not. It should be said that allusions to the technicalities of the later and more highly developed arts and trades occur frequently in modern proverbial use, but characteristically in the proverbial phrase and not the proverb. A proverbial phrase like to have an ace up ones sleeve, or to cut it close is a form to be set apart from the proverb. Its intelligibility varies greatly from instance to instance and depends on the acquaintance that the speaker and hearer may have with a particular activity. How many of us understand the allusion in to pass the buck? Although I can claim no knowledge of Sumerian idiom, I see nothing in Pro- fessor Gordons collection that seems to be a proverbial phrase.

    This Sumerian collection differs from a modern collection in interesting ways. There are here more proverbs dealing with law, debts, land, and the life of merchants than we would expect to find in a modern collection. The conceptions of the fox (p. 286) and the dog (p. 287) differ from those familiar to us. The circumstances of Sumerian life no doubt explain the lack of allusions to cats and rats or mice.

    Professor Gordon deals briefly with the stylistic peculiarities of Sumerian proverbs (pp. 14-17). To his list we might add personification of abstract ideas as found in a proverb about Destruction and Disease (p. 297). In the typology of proverbs (pp. 17- 19) he might have named the Priamel and the Wellerism. The Priamel-a variety of proverb for which we have no English name-is an enumeration of ideas that may be preceded or followed by a general statement or may omit it, leaving it to be inferred. An example is: A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the more they are beaten the better they be, in which the generalization concludes the proverb. I cite only one of the many Sumerian examples: My husband heaps up (grain) for me, My son metes it out for me.-Would that my darling husband would pick out the bones from the fish (for me) ! as found on pages 107, 465-466. The Wellerism is a proverbial quotation citing the speakers name and often the circumstances in which the words are spoken. An example is: Everyone to his taste, said the farmer and kissed the cow. The Sumerians ascribed various Wellerisms to the kalfim-priest (pp. 220-222), but the most interesting one is: The fox having urinated into the sea, The whole of the sea is my urine! (he said), as found on pp. 222-223. This was widely known in the Renaissance. See the variant Everything helps, quoth the wren when she p--- in the sea, cited from M. P. Iilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), p. 763 (W 935).

    The Face ojthe Ancient Orient: A Panorama o j Near Eastern Civilizations in Pre-Classical Times. SABATINO MOSCATI. (Translation.) Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1960. xvi, 328 pp., 5 illustrations, map, 32 plates. $6.00.

    Reviewed by EDITH PORADA, Columbia University This survey acquaints the general reader with the outlines of ancient Egyptian and

    Near Eastern history and civilization. The author establishes a pattern of Components, the earliest civilizations (Mesopotamian and Egyptian) ; Calalysls, the people whose appearance in the 2nd millennium B.C. had a decisive impact on the cultural and his- torical development of the ancient world (Hittites, Hurrians, Canaanites, Arameans, Israelites) ; and Synthesis, which the author sees in the Achaemenian Empire, specifi- cally in the Zarathustrian religion. The archeological and epigraphic material concerning these peoples is summarized under the following headings: historical outlines, religious structure, literary genres, and artistic types. Well chosen excerpts from ancient texts