Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
This episode, my guest is a specialist in Sumerian literature, some of the oldest surviving literature from anywhere in the world. She talks about a group of rather unusual texts that are almost 4000 years old. They take the form of arguments between two women, and shed light on ancient ideas of what women should be, and how they should behave. Our guest studied these texts for her doctoral dissertation. This is a book length piece of research where new experts demonstrate their abilities. Our guest is modest, but I’ll be failing both her and you if I didn’t mention just how impressive her work is. In 2018, her dissertation won the International Association for Assyriology’s prize for the best dissertation in our field submitted in the previous two years. Then, in 2019, it won the German Academic Scholarship Foundation’s prestigious Johannes Zilkens dissertation prize in humanities and social sciences. That’s pretty special.
The texts she works with are difficult even by the standards of Sumerian literature. And before she could even start to analyze them, she had to reconstruct the text in the first place. Unlike the situation in some other academic fields, a lot of this foundational work still needs to be done. It’s one of the most difficult and intellectually challenging tasks and an assyriologist can undertake. So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge.
Thank you very much for having me.
Could you tell us please, who are you and what do you do?
My name is Jana Matuszak and I’m a lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at SOAS, University of London.
You’ve been working on a special group of Sumerian literary texts. I imagine most people are a little bit uncertain about what Sumerian literature is like, anyway. And even specialists won’t be familiar with these texts. Could you give us a flavour of them, please?
So maybe I could start with one of my favorite quotes from the one of the texts that I’ve been working on, which goes as follows. It’s also going to give you an idea of what this Sumerian literary text may have approximately sounded like in antiquity.
(QUOTES SEVERAL LINES OF SUMERIAN)
This is a short speech from a Sumerian literary disputation between two women who debate about who’s the better housewife. And here one of them is making fun of her allegedly very incompetent rival. And she’s accusing her of muddying the water that she’s drawing from the well. And then she’s relishing in a description of how her opponent is grinding grain all day long. That’s the (Sumerian) “arrrr arrrr arrrr”. And it’s a particular feature of Sumerian that you can repeat verbal bases such as “arrrr”, which means “to grind”, in order to achieve a certain effect. And in this case, this verb is imitating the sound of the grinding stone and the quadruplication of the verbal base highlights how monotonous and arduous … strenuous … the task is. So I love the onomatopoeic and comic qualities of this line in particular. And then the rest of the speech gleefully details how after grinding grain all day long, the woman attempts to bake bread, which is obviously one of the very basic tasks a housewife in ancient Sumer would have had to do on a daily basis. But she describes how after following every individual step, she ends up by burning it completely. And the resume is whatever she touches she ruins completely. Well, this already gives you an idea of the content and the style of the text. It’s also quite well suited for explaining some things about the Sumerian language. So you may have heard that certain sounds get repeated quite often. And that’s because Sumerian is an agglutinative language, which means that it doesn’t inflect like English, so there is no “go, went, gone” or “you burn, she burns”. Rather in Sumerian, you add prefixes and suffixes to an immutable base to express who’s doing something, and when, and such things. And there are several agglutinative languages such as Turkish and Japanese or Hungarian, but Sumerian is isolated. It’s not related to any known language, dead or alive. It was spoken in southern Iraq, from the fourth millennium BCE to roughly around 2000 BCE, which means it’s been dead for 4000 years already. But thanks to the text that we have preserved, we can still read and enjoy their jokes.
If the last person to speak Sumerian has been dead for 4000 years already. How do we know what it sounded like?
That’s a very good question. Essentially, this is thanks to the Babylonians, who had to learn Sumerian and they learned Sumerian in school after it had died out, because Sumerian was a very prestigious language. It was important for culture and scholarship in order to be able to teach Sumerian as a dead language, pretty much like we teach Latin in certain grammar schools nowadays. They came up with all sorts of tools like dictionaries and grammatical paradigms, but also with pronunciation glosses. We will never get quite to the real pronunciation of Sumerian. We will always hear it pronounced as the Babylonians would have pronounced it, but it gives us a fair idea of what it might have approximately sounded like. It’s also one of the few, perhaps, advantages of the cuneiform writing system that it notes vowels. So it writes down both consonants and vowels. And that, of course, makes it easier to get to the original pronunciation.
Can you tell us about these texts in more detail, please? How many of them are there? And what are they about?
I’m working on a specific corpus of texts within the larger corpus of Sumerian literature that have never been translated into a modern language before. That alone is quite exciting. But the content is also pretty unique. There are roughly four texts that share the common aim of defining the ideal woman. And what’s interesting is that they never actually describe the ideal woman, but only ever her exact opposite. So they always say, “don’t do it like that. Don’t behave like her. She is not a good woman”. They only ever tell how not to be a woman, and only indirectly encourage women to behave otherwise, to behave like a good woman. And out of these four texts, which aim to define the ideal woman by way of her exact opposite, there are two verbal duels between women who quarrel about who’s the better housewife. This may sound quite banal, but is absolutely remarkable, because ordinary housewives otherwise never figure as the protagonists of major literary compositions. It’s either the gods or at most legendary kings of old, like Gilgamesh. But here we have two bickering neighbours in some unknown southern Iraqi city at the beginning of the second millennium BCE, who apparently hate each other’s guts. So it’s very down to earth in that respect. These two verbal duels go by the not very evocative titles Two Women A and B, which is established in the secondary literature, but also more than just a little unfortunate. Because the texts themselves are a lot more exciting than their modern titles suggest. Only Two Women B is nearly completely preserved at 230 lines. That’s roughly medium length for Sumerian literature. And the text is preserved on over 60 manuscripts from all over Mesopotamia. So it was already very popular in antiquity. It’s a fascinating text because we can observe beautifully how from a rather playful beginning, the contest between the two women totally gets out of hand and ends in outright slander when one woman calls the other a whore. Now this is a very serious accusation if hurled against a married woman, because it implies adultery, which is a capital crime in Mesopotamia. And indeed her husband immediately threatens to divorce her on the grounds of these rumours. So the slandered woman has to go to court to clear her reputation and have her slandering rival punished. So there is quite some drama going on. And then the last third of the text has the longest literary adaptation of a rather twisted and complicated lawsuit in the Sumerian language. The other text, which goes by the beautiful title of Two Women A is only a collection of unconnected fragments. And we don’t really get any sense of a plot. We don’t know if there was as much drama involved as in Two Women B, partly because the beginning and end are lost. But from what we can tell from the individual portions of texts that have been preserved, it’s again about the general question, “what does it take to be a good woman?” And in most cases, a good woman is equated with a good housewife. The other two texts are songs of abuse against women. And they’re pretty much my own discovery. They were completely unknown. So I got to choose titles for them. And I decided to follow the Sumerian and Babylonian practice of citing texts by their first line. So in Mesopotamia, we don’t get these abstract titles that we’re used to. Rather they quote text by the first couple of words. And that works really well in these two cases, because the first song is called The Evil Mouth. And the second one is called Woman Perfecting Evil. That gives you straightaway an idea of what to expect goes on in that vein.
Those titles have definitely got a lot more zing to them.
Definitely, definitely. The problem that we have with these vocal contests is, for one thing I mentioned that Two Women A doesn’t have the beginning preserved. So we can’t use the Mesopotamian practice of quoting it by the first couple of words, because we don’t know them. And the problem we have with Two Women B is that the beginning line does not have quite as much zing as Woman Perfecting Evil. It’s a rather innocent question. One woman asks the other, METE AMDIDEN “where are you coming from?” That doesn’t tell you anything about how the text is going to develop. And on the other hand, it’s also a very common beginning for this type of genre, this type of verbal contest between two human protagonists. So it’s doesn’t make much sense to use that title, because it could even be ambiguous. There might be more texts beginning the same way.
That’d be a bit like us calling lots of things Once Upon A Time, wouldn’t it?
That’s a really good comparison. There are not quite as many verbal contests as there are fairy tales. But yes, it’s very similar in that respect.
You mentioned that many of your sources of fragmentary. Could you explain for us please the physical nature of these sources, and how it is it they come to be fragmentary?
Yes, all these texts that I’ve mentioned–these two songs of abuse and these two verbal duels–just like any other texts in Mesopotamia, they were written in the cuneiform script on clay tablets. Now, any clay object is wonderfully durable. And unlike parchment, for instance, they only get harder if they burn. So burning a library in Mesopotamia is quite a good thing. But they also tend to break in sometimes into rather tiny pieces. And that explains the fragmentary nature of many cuneiform tablets. It’s even a little more complicated when it comes to Sumerian literary compositions. They are very often a giant puzzle, because there are very few tablets that originally contain the entire composition. More frequently, they only contain excerpts of about 20 to 50 lines. So if you have a text like Two Women B, which is 230 lines long, you need several of those to reconstruct the entire text. These 20 to 50 lines seem to be the portion of text that scribal students learned per day. So they first split up longer compositions into manageable chunks, before writing them out completely on our tablets. So we mainly have excerpts, then these excerpts can be broken as well and only very rarely do we have tablets that originally contained the entire composition. Most of them are again broken only for the mock hymn The Evil Mouth do I have one clay prism that contains the entire text with only a few breaks. For all the other compositions that I’ve mentioned, I have to reconstruct from various different bits and pieces.
So you’re dealing with damaged fragments of what were only partial copies of a text. And each of those copies had a slightly different version of the text, anyway. That sounds pretty much like a nightmare scenario.
That’s true. It’s very time consuming. But it’s also exciting because you get to travel to museums and collections. And sometimes you’re lucky and you find another tiny little piece. And sometimes that closes the gap. It’s worth the effort.
Do we know the names of the women in these texts? Were they real people?
All characters are completely fictitious, which I think very much lies in the nature of the genre. If you set out to define either ideal women, or the exact opposite thereof, you will necessarily create some sort of stereotype. And the characteristics of the woman will be so exaggerated that it cannot really match a real person. However, some of the characters do seem to have real names, which means names that are attested for historical people. In Two Women B, we only learn the name of the evil woman who slanders her rival as a whore. She’s called Ninkuzu, which means “the lady is wise”. And the name of her rival is either lost in a break or not mentioned at all, which is unfortunate, because very often, if you have these two antagonists, there’s also a contrast between them that is reflected in their names. So you get these telling names that somehow reflect that character or their status. They’re also often ironic. And if this is the case with Ninkuzu, “the lady is wise”, is difficult to tell, because we just lack the name of her opponent for comparison. But there is one parallel in a similar verbal duel between two male protagonists, which I could quote by way of an example. Here we have two scribal students engaging in a verbal contest, but they are not quite of equal rank. So there’s one precocious younger student who challenges the authority of his more senior colleague, and the young precocious one is called Enkimansum, which means “Enki–the Sumerian god of wisdom–has given it to me”, which I understand as Enki has given me understanding. And it reflects how you can successfully challenge the older student, but this guy doesn’t really cut a very good figure. And his name is Girine-Isa, “his foot is beautiful”. The name is actually not quite as silly as it might sound to us, because “foot” stands for “behaviour”. And it is actually an attested Sumerian name. It wasn’t made up or anything. So it normally means his behaviour is beautiful. But either there was some sort of joke going on about the foot being singled out, when as a scribe, his hand really should be beautiful, or if it’s a contrast between his name and his actual behaviour in the text, which is far from beautiful, because he makes quite a fool of himself. Whether this is the same in Two Women B remains to be determined.
Even if the characters are fictitious, did these texts reflect in some way a reality, whether past or present, or are they pure fiction?
They are fiction, but a quite special type of fiction, which is inspired by everyday life in a typical southern Iraqi city in the early second millennium BCE. So these texts are set in the then present, and the protagonists, if they have names at all, have common Sumerian names, and live in surroundings and circumstances that would have been largely familiar to the ancient readers. This is again very unusual, as most literary texts are either set in some mythical primeval time, or at least in some glorious half mythical past, or they’re altogether timeless. But there are almost no other texts which are set in the then present in the Babylonian city of the early second millennium BCE. So in other words, we have very different sort of fiction than in the stories about the legendary kings of Uruk such as Gilgamesh, who are sitting out on adventures and faraway lands, fighting monsters, etc. It’s still fiction, but closer to home.
Who wrote these texts then? And how were they used?
The texts were most likely written by teachers for their students, scribal apprentices, and they probably had little relevance outside of the school. So these are very heavily didactic and moralizing compositions, and not the kind of traditional literature that was passed on orally for centuries before finally being written down. But we don’t know who exactly the authors were, and whether it was one or many, and how many people were involved in the writing process. What we do know about is scribal education in general, so that the context … the immediate social context in which these texts were most likely composed and studied … as far as we can reconstruct, scribal … scribal education in the early second millennium BCE, it started with learning simple cuneiform signs and then gradually progressed. And most students would only have to learn enough to conduct business to draft contracts or to write letters, and only some of them would proceed to study Sumerian literature, which we have to remember that at the time that these manuscripts were copied out, Sumerian was no longer spoken in daily life. These scribal apprentices had to learn Sumerian as a dead foreign language at school, a bit like Latin nowadays, and only those highly educated students would then read texts such as Two Women B. I’ve said that these are quite didactic and moralising in nature, because they were essentially written by male teachers for their predominantly male students. Two Women B is a good case in point, because this text alone could teach students so many different things. The verbal duel would teach them the art of rhetoric, or fighting with words, as well as the characteristics of a future ideal wife indirectly. And then the lawsuit at the end could teach them procedural law, and also how to successfully hold speeches for the defence, or prosecution speeches, etc. It’s really the first time that we observe the conscious creation of literary texts in order to teach readers a lesson in life. It even borders on a reflection on ethics, as one of the leading questions is always, “what does it take to be a good woman?” I should point out that these texts weren’t just studied and copied out and read in silence, very likely they were actually performed. It’s obvious from text internal criteria that they have the potential for some sort of theatrical stage adaptation, which lies in the nature of the genre. It’s very lively. And it’s quite possible that originally these sort of duels between two antagonists, who argue about who’s better or who’s more important, we’re actually improvised in live performances. And we have some evidence that in the 21st century BCE, when Sumerian was still spoken as a daily language, some sort of verbal contest was performed at the royal court for the entertainment of the king. With slightly different protagonists, it wouldn’t be housewives entertaining the king, it would be more likely more abstract things like summer and winter, bird and fish. These are topics that are still very popular. We have the first manuscripts of verbal contests between summer and winter from the 19th century BCE. But we also have a modern Iraqi Arabic version of the same sort of contest between summer and winter, from the 20th century of our era. So there is a long continuity in Iraq in particular, but also beyond of this genre of verbal duels, almost in every kind of context. There is this performative aspect to it, because it’s mainly direct speech, and the antagonists engage in this contest. And perhaps I can use this opportunity to announce that I’m actually collaborating with professional storytellers of the Zipang collective, to create a modern performance of Two Women B in English and Arabic. We’re actually working on bringing this text back on stage for the first time in 4000 years.
Wow. I look forward to seeing that. So the million dollar question: according to these texts, what are the characteristics of the ideal woman?
Well, I’m afraid I won’t tell you much news. Quite broadly speaking, there were four categories that we use to define the ideal woman: character traits, social status, professional competence, and physical properties or characteristics. When it comes to character traits, certain virtues, character traits were expected such as decency, modern safety, moderation, obedience, diligence, etc. So just the things that we still more or less appreciate. An ideal woman would also come from a good family. So social status played a role. Very importantly, she would look after the household well. She would be a good administrator. And she would be a skilled textile worker, because it was a woman’s job to provide her family with clothes. And she would also be a good cook. So apart from the textile production, not much has changed. Surely she also raised the children. But somehow that does not play a prominent role in the text. Far more weight and importance is given to caring for her husband, and pleasing him sexually. So that gives us already an idea from whose perspective these texts were written. And finally, which is probably somewhat connected to the previous issue, she was supposed to be both healthy and pretty. But it’s interesting to note that healthy was more important than being pretty, because she would need to have a healthy functioning body in order to fulfill all these tasks that were expected from her. I should hasten to add, though, that essentially the same parameters define ideal men, and the only category in which ideal men and women <differ> lies in professional competence. So there is a clear division when it comes to work. Women were supposed to be at the domestic periphery of the scribal school, and they would look after the household and cook and weave cloth. And ideal men were supposed to be scribes. So it’s a very restrictive and very elitist worldview in which also men, who in theory could have lots of different professions–and lots of different professions are at tested at the time–could only ever be scribes.
There are many different strands of ideology evident in these texts. But the big one has to be that you have a text apparently written by men for young boys, that explains how to be a woman. That smells like misogyny, doesn’t it? Is that how we should see it?
That’s a really good question, which is surprisingly hard to answer. It’s true that the male authors chose to define ideal women by attacking their exact opposite. So these texts really consist of nothing but insults against women. And of course, that kind of smells of misogyny. But the same is true for texts about ideal men. So that very peculiar pedagogy of defining ideals by way of its opposite, that alone is not enough to call these texts misogyny, because you have the same approach in texts trying to define the ideal scribe. It’s also clear from the texts that the authors did appreciate women who did it right. There are no statements anywhere in Sumerian literature that speak of categorical misogyny such as “woman is the source of all evil”, as you find it in certain later Greek writings or traditions derived from the Hebrew Bible. And actually also in some later Babylonian texts from the first millennium BCE. There is in the whole corpus of this kind of didactic moralizing advice literature, there is clear appreciation for capable women, caring mothers, and wives. Women who do it right, do get appreciation. One quite telling rhetorical question that keeps recurring in both verbal duels is “are you a woman?” The expected answer is clearly “no”. So you have the speech, very much like the one I quoted at the beginning. So you’re doing this and this and that wrong. And then they end with the question, “and you, you are a woman? No, you’re not. You’re doing it wrong!” But at the same time, that means if she were doing it right, she would be considered a woman and that would be something positive. In general, misogyny and Sumerian didactic literature from the early second millennium BC is a little more subtle. You see it in certain imbalances in certain very exaggerated stereotypes. For instance, when men quarrel, it never gets so totally out of hand, but the minute two female neighbours engage in a contest, it ends at court and it’s big drama. I think these imbalances can be explained with the fact that knowledge of literary Sumerian was restricted to male dominated scribal circles, who felt superior to pretty much anyone, and clearly superior to women who were largely excluded from the discourse for lack of this kind of advanced scribal education. And then it’s easy to make fun of women if there are no women of equal standing around.
You’ve obviously done a lot of work on these texts already. What stage are you at in the research process?
I have a few articles and book chapters out on individual topics related to my work on the construction of the idea of women, or gender roles more specifically, but I have to say the bulk of my work is forthcoming or in preparation. My critical edition and analysis of Two Women B should appear with de Gruyter before the end of this year. Once that’s done, I will tackle the rest of the corpus. One monograph that I’ve started working on is a book on Sumerian mock hymns, which will include the first editions of The Evil Mouth and Woman Perfecting Evil, but I’ll also discuss mock hymns against men and the genre, which hasn’t been really recognized as a genre before. But the ultimate culmination of my work on all of these four texts will be a book on defining femininity, or the construction of ideal women at the dawn of the second millennium BC. This will be a synthesis aimed at a wider interested audience with a stronger methodological underpinning from gender studies. Because what we have here, in fact, is the world’s oldest literary discourse on gender roles, on what it meant to be a woman and the core of that book already exists, and I really look forward to writing it, but it will probably take some time to finish. In the meantime, I’m working on English translations of all these four texts that I’ve mentioned today. In the not too far future, they should be available freely online on a database devoted to Mesopotamian literature more generally. It’s called Oracc, which stands for the Open, Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus. Until the books are out, people may be able to read at least the English translations of these texts on the internet.
Is there any way we can go to keep up to date with your latest discoveries?
I have an academia.edu page where I upload publications that are not under any sort of embargo. The most complete list of publications will probably be on my university website. I’ve also recently opened a Twitter account, which I mainly use for all things ancient Near Eastern, so there, I will definitely announce new things on women in Sumerian literature.
Thank you very much. That was fascinating.
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