The Sumerian King List or the ‘History’ of Kingship in Early Mesopotamia

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By: Gianni Marchesi

Of course, there is no such thing as a Sumerian king list. The text usually referred to as the ‘Sumerian King List’ (SKL) is a composition somewhere between a literary text and a list proper, which deals with the history of kingship in Babylonia from the beginning of time to the early centuries of the second millennium BCE. But what it does reflect is something more important, the Mesopotamian perception of the proper ordering of politics and the world.

Ur III period example of the Sumerian King List. Image courtesy G. Marchesi.

Ur III period example of the Sumerian King List.

In fact, the native title of this composition was simply ‘Kingship’, after its first word, nam-lugal.

nam-lugal an-ta e11-da-ba / Kiš.KI lugal-am3 / Kiš.KI-a GIŠ.UR3-e /
mu 600×3+60×6 i3-na

When kingship came down from heaven, (the city of) Kish was sovereign; in Kish, Gushur exercised (kingship) for 2,160 years.

So begins the oldest SKL manuscript, which dates to the time of Shulgi (ca. 2093-2046 BCE), the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur (also called Ur III). Later compilers apparently felt uncomfortable with the prominence accorded to the city of Kish and provided a new beginning to the composition by devising a prior descent of kingship in the Sumerian city of Eridu.

Kish

Kish

Eridu

Eridu

In the original version, however, Kish was likely to have been the first seat of kingship. In that city a certain Gushur (‘Tree-Trunk’?) reigned for hundreds and hundreds of years. Similarly long-lived kings of Kish reigned until the city was defeated and kingship was transferred to Uruk, or rather to Eana, the sacred precinct of Uruk.

Various kings succeeded one another in Eana until Uruk was also defeated and kingship moved to another city. The same story is repeated many times; according to the SKL, kingship continued to shift from one city to another. In this narrative, all the rulers who allegedly held sovereignty over the whole of Babylonia are listed one after the other without interruption, except for one break – a time of political confusion and anarchy, during which it was not clear who the king was.

Shulgi

Shulgi

Apart from this, the SKL provides us with an unbroken sequence of kings who exercised kingship. Some of them ruled for hundreds, or even thousands, of years; others ruled for more ‘human’ periods of time. Legendary kings of the distant past were followed by kings known from historical sources; this connected the mythological world directly to the political order of the present.

Some manuscripts add short biographical notes about particularly remarkable figures. We are told that before becoming king certain persons were a shepherd, a fisherman, a smith, a fuller, a boatman, a leatherworker, a low-ranking priest, and so on. Even a female tavern-keeper seems to have exercised kingship, and not for a short time!

Other notes refer to ‘historical’ events, such as a successful military raid or the foundation of a city. Anecdotes and fragments of historical traditions found their way into the SKL, along with allusions to obscure myths and legends, probably transmitted only orally.

The Sumerian King List, therefore, is not simply a list of kings and dynasties: it is a complex and composite literary work with a long editorial history, but one that is fundamentally political. The most ancient source is from Ur III, but we have several clues to the existence of an earlier version dating back to the Sargonic period (ca. 2350-2200 BCE), and possibly written in the Akkadian language.

Clearly the SKL underwent a number of changes over the course of time. Some of these changes were accidental, due simply to errors and lack of accuracy in the transmission process. Others were the result of deliberate manipulations or the interpolations of other textual sources. But what does it tell us about history?

Although the circumstances under which the SKL was created are still unknown, it is probable that the SKL originally served to legitimize the domination of the kings of Akkad over the whole of Babylonia. The SKL anachronistically and fictionally projects the political situation of the Sargonic period – when the entire land of Sumer and Akkad was for the first time unified – into the distant past. At any one time, the SKL argues, there was only one legitimate seat of kingship and only one legitimate king, whose authority extended over the entire country. So it has been from time immemorial.

Of course, the political reality of the region before the advent of the Akkadian dynasty was actually quite different. Early Dynastic Babylonia was subdivided into several territorial political entities – the so-called city-states – each with its own political leader, called variously en, lugal or ‘ensi2. However, the SKL is not concerned with historical reality. Once it became an ‘authoritative’ part of the Mesopotamian tradition, it was utilized again and again by Babylonian sovereigns, or political circles close to them, for their own ideological and political purposes. One king to rule all of Mesopotamia was the ideal, even if it was far from the reality.

The SKL is a document of exceptional interest: it provides us with a unique reconstruction of the history of early Babylonia by the Babylonians themselves. The absence of any divine involvement in the SKL is also noteworthy, and unique in Sumerian literature. No deity plays a role in the numerous dynastic changes; kingship is transferred from city to city as a consequence of military events only. The sole divine entity in the SKL is kingship itself, which, by virtue of its descending from heaven, was conceptualized as a divine institution.

On the other hand, the history told by the SKL is largely fictional and mythical in character. Though acknowledging this fact, scholars in the past have relied heavily on the list’s data for reconstructing the dynasties and chronology of third millennium Mesopotamia. The most strenuous defender of the historical value of the information that the SKL provides was its editor, 20th century Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen.

Thorkild Jacobsen, Sumerian King List

Thorkild Jacobsen, Sumerian King List

Jacobsen believed that the actual materials from which the SKL was built up (such as names of kings and lengths of reigns) represent ‘a historical source of high value, from which only some exaggerated reigns occurring with the earliest rulers should be segregated’.

Jacobsen’s belief in the general historical veracity of the SKL led him to arbitrarily emend the text or restore broken portions of it with the names of kings known from historical sources, and to suggest unlikely readings for some of the royal names in order to approximate the names of known historical sovereigns.

As Jacobsen had done, so did other scholars. But very few of the royal names mentioned in the SKL are actually attested in sources from the Early Dynastic period. Their names do not even occur in Sumerian and Akkadian texts of the third millennium BCE. These facts alone are telling about the historical reliability of the SKL. Moreover, the reigns attributed to the few kings who do occur in Early Dynastic sources are either wholly unrealistic, or clearly artificial. In fact, there are only seven, including the famous Pabilgames (‘Gilgamesh’) of Uruk, the ancient king and hero of various legendary tales (among which the so-called ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’), who is said to have reigned for 126 years.

The Sumerian King List has little to offer us in reconstructing the historical chronology of the Early Dynastic period. Any such reconstruction should be based on Early Dynastic sources only. But contrasting the text with the reality of competing and warring kings gives us insights into the Mesopotamian tradition and its political aspirations of unity.

Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum containing an Old Babylonian version of the Sumerian King List

Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum containing an Old Babylonian version of the Sumerian King List

Adapted from Gianni Marchesi, ‘The Sumerian King List and the Early History of Mesopotamia’, in: ana turri gimilli: Studi dedicati al Padre Werner R. Mayer, S.J. da amici e allievi (Vicino Oriente – Quaderno 5), eds. M. G. Biga and M. Liverani, Roma 2010, pp. 231-248 (downloadable at https://unibo.academia.edu/GianniMarchesi).

Gianni Marchesi is Assistant Professor of Assyriology at the University of Bologna.

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1 Comments for : The Sumerian King List or the ‘History’ of Kingship in Early Mesopotamia
  1. Pingback: The Sumerian King List or the ‘History’ of Kingship in Early Mesopotamia — The ASOR Blog | Talmidimblogging

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