Literary works in first-millennium scribal education

We know very little about the uses of literature for entertainment or relaxation in first-millennium Assyria and Babylonia. Rather, given the archaeological and textual evidence, we can understand it best in its educational, scholarly and political functions.

In modern times familiarity with works of great literature, whether plays, poetry or prose, can be a mark of culture and status. A similar situation pertained in the ancient world. For instance, there was far more emphasis on acquiring the classics of literary Akkadian in seventh-century Huzirina, in the western provinces of the Assyrian empire, than we can see in the royal city of Kalhu at exacly the same time. In the Kalhu Ezida the 12 extant literary manuscripts account for less than 5 percent of the entire "library", compared to 56—over 15%—in Huzirina.

The royal scholars working in the heartland of empire were already assured of their status and standing; they had nothing to prove but proficiency in their scholarly specialisms. the young men of Huzirina, however, were largely the sons of middle-ranking officials and must have aspired to their own fathers' offices if not higher posts. For them, education was about far more than developing managerial or administrative literacy. They needed to demonstrate that they were loyal Assyrians, conversant with the high culture of the imperial elite. One of the most effective means of doing so was through the 'great books programme' offered in the Huzirina scribal school.

In late Achaemenid and Seleucid Uruk, by contrast, the educational and political functions of Akkadian literature, were very different. Uruk at this time seems to have been fiercely local and independent, possibly even anti-royal. At least, this is the message collectively sent by its few suriviving works of narrative literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh, after all, was all about the greatest king that Uruk had ever known, to whom no modern monarch could compare. The List of Kings and Sages (BagM Beih. 2, 89 [/cams/gkab/P/]) traces the history of scholarship in Uruk back to the time before the flood and suggests that recent rulers had abandoned that tradition. The Uruk Chronicle (SpTU 1, 2 [/cams/gkab/P348423/]) and the Uruk Prophecy (SpTU 1, 3 [/cams/gkab/P348424/]) point to instances of past abuses of royal power in Uruk and hope for better rule to come.

The pages in this section describe some of the literary works taught and learned in the CAMS/GKAB "libraries". For fuller translations and analyses, consult the works below.

Further Reading

Eleanor Robson

Eleanor Robson, 'Literary works in first-millennium scribal education', The Geography of Knowledge, The GKAB Project, 2019 []

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