Sumerian king list

The Sumerian King List still puzzles historians after more than a century of research

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Out of the many incredible artefacts that have been recovered from sites in Iraq where flourishing Sumerian cities once stood, few have been more intriguing than the Sumerian King List, an ancient manuscript originally recorded in the Sumerian language, listing kings of Sumer (ancient southern Iraq) from Sumerian and neighbouring dynasties, their supposed reign lengths, and the locations of "official" kingship. What makes this artefact so unique is the fact that the list blends apparently mythical pre-dynastic rulers with historical rulers who are known to have existed. 

The first fragment of this rare and unique text, a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet, was found in the early 1900s by German-American scholar Hermann Hilprecht at the site of ancient Nippur and published in 1906.  Since Hilprecht’s discovery, at least 18 other exemplars of the king’s list have been found, most of them dating from the second half of the Isin dynasty (c. 2017-1794 BCE.).  No two of these documents are identical. However, there is enough common material in all versions of the list to make it clear that they are derived from a single, "ideal" account of Sumerian history.

Sumerian king listAmong all the examples of the Sumerian King List, the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection in Oxford represents the most extensive version as well as the most complete copy of the King List. The 8-inch-high prism contains four sides with two columns on each side. It is believed that it originally had a wooden spindle going through its centre so that it could be rotated and read on all four sides. It lists rulers from the antediluvian (“before the flood”) dynasties to the fourteenth ruler of the Isin dynasty (ca. 1763–1753 BC).

The list is of immense value because it reflects very old traditions while at the same time providing an important chronological framework relating to the different periods of kingship in Sumeria, and even demonstrates remarkable parallels to accounts in Genesis.

The ancient civilisation of Sumer

Sumer (sometimes called Sumeria), is the site of the earliest known civilization, located in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in the area that later became Babylonia and is now southern Iraq from around Baghdad to the Persian Gulf.

By the 3 rd millennium BC, Sumer was the site of at least twelve separate city states: KishErechUr,SipparAkshak, Larak, NippurAdabUmmaLagashBad-tibira, and  Larsa. Each of these states comprised a walled city and its surrounding villages and land, and each worshiped its own deity, whose temple was the central structure of the city. Political power originally belonged to the citizens, but, as rivalry between the various city-states increased, each adopted the institution of  kingship

The Sumerian King List , records that eight kings reigned before a great flood. After the Flood, various city-states and their dynasties of kings temporarily gained power over the others. 

Sumer’s mythical past

The Sumerian King List begins with the very origin of kingship, which is seen as a divine institution: “the kingship had descended from heaven”.  The rulers in the earliest dynasties are represented as reigning fantastically long periods:

After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alaljar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years.

Some of the rulers mentioned in the early list, such as Etana, Lugal-banda and Gilgamesh, are mythical or legendary figures whose heroic feats are subjects of a series of Sumerian and Babylonian narrative compositions.

The early list names eight kings with a total of 241,200 years from the time when kingship “descended from heaven” to the time when "the Flood" swept over the land and once more "the kingship was lowered from heaven" after the Flood.

Interpretation of long reigns

The amazingly long tenure of the early kings has provoked many attempts at interpretation. At one extreme is the complete dismissal of the astronomically large figures as “completely artificial” and the view that they are unworthy of serious consideration.  At the other extreme, is the belief that the numbers have a basis in reality and that the early kings were indeed gods who were capable of living much longer than humans.

In between the two extremes is the hypothesis that the figures represent relative power, triumph or importance.  For example, in ancient Egypt, the phrase “he died aged 110” referred to someone who lived life to the full and who offered an important contribution to society.  In the same way, the extremely long periods of reign of the early kings may represent how incredibly important they were perceived as being in the eyes of the people. This doesn’t explain, however, why the periods of tenure later switched to realistic time periods.

Comments

angieblackmon's picture

is it possible that at least for the mythical rulers, that the people lived under the guidance of this person for a long amount of time, then under another and another...while the actual rulers changed more frequently. I'm trying to think of a good example to use...okay this might not be the best example but in America, we have the democratic and republican parties, we could have elections resulting in one party winning several elections in a row, but under different presidents....like President Grant took office in March 4, 1869 and we had 4 consecutive republican presidents ending with President Arthur finishing his term March 4, 1885...so in that 16 years, we had 4 different presidents but all from the same republican party...so could these Kings have done something similiar??? or am I completely out in left field? Just a thought...

love, light and blessings

AB

I don't think that that is left field. Possibly they were family dynasties???

The life-spans listed for long-lived patriarchs in the bible line up remarkably well with Egyptian dynasties. The Egyptian stories make clear they are family names and not long-lived individuals.

It seems to defy coincidence but, to be fair, you have to accept the adjustments of dates for Egyptian regencies (where, say, a ruler did not officially reign until of a certain age so a 'regent' would belong to that ruler's reign or not, depending on who recorded it.)

What seems the best answer to me: Late Israeli retelling of Egyptian tales, replacing names with Israelite names (probably already famous individuals or mythic characters.)

Recall that, I think, in one of Joseph Cambell's Masks of God books. I'd like to see a 3 part comparison. Egypt/Summer/Biblical patriarchs (dynasties.) in a chart. Earlier Egyptian dynasties seem made up and may be stolen from earlier Sumerian lists.

Allen Austin has very interesting and compelling research on the correlation of this Sumerian kings compared to biblical record on his website Middle of the Earth (middleoftheearth.com). He believes that these are the same people--the descendants of Adam through his son, Seth. After the confusion of languages at Babel the antediluvian patriarchs were known by different names. Allen Austin also goes on to explain that the difference in ages can be ascribed to a recording error between base-ten taken as base-sixty. Most creationist believe that there was an ice canopy that shielded the earth that was destroyed by the Great Flood which accounted for the long lives of the pre-Flood people. Allen Austin has books available on Amazon.com that discusses his research.

Half a century ago I read a book that professed we as pre humans were less physical and more spiritual and glided through a much 'heavier atmosphere'. It stated that time was not recorded as today and however our transformation came about it had something to do with the loss of that primordial atmosphere. It stated that the Flood was much, much older than we interprete it today. But stayed in our storytelling because of the physical world of today.
Yes there have been lesser local floods but the one that engulfed the entire earth goes millions of years.
Sorry I no longer have that book, but if anyone has read it could you post would love to re read, thanks.

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