Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sumerian Origins - People and Society

What were these Sumerians, the source culture for our Jaredites, really like? What kind of people were they? What did they think about? How did they dress? The mysterious cuneiform tablets reveal a great deal about these details - details that flesh out these long dead people to our understanding.

To begin with, the Sumerian citizen was urbane.  His life and culture were centered in the cities. The Sumerians felt that city life was essential for a truly advanced and cultured lifestyle. Rural people were looked down on, especially the nomadic herder. The leading rulers, priests, wealthy land owners, craftsmen and artisians would be found residing in the cities.  Kramer observes: “Sumerian civilization was essentially urban in character, although it rested on an agricultural rather than an industrial base. The land Sumer, in the third millennium B.C., consisted of a dozen or so city-states, each having a large and usually walled city surrounded by suburban villages and hamlets (994).”

Aside from a minority of priests, princes and soldiers, the majority of the population consisted of “farmers and cattle breeders, boatmen and fishermen, merchants and scribes, doctors and architects, masons and carpenters, smiths, jewelers, and potters. There were of course a number of rich and powerful families who owned large estates; but even the poor managed to own farms and gardens, houses, and cattle. The more industrious of the artisans and craftsmen sold their handmade products in the free town market ... Traveling merchants carried on a thriving trade from city to city and with surrounding states by land and sea, and not a few of these merchants were probably private individuals rather than temple or palace representatives (1012).”

Regarding Sumerian social classes: “The population consisted of four categories: nobles, commoners, clients, and slaves. The nobility owned large estates, partly as private individuals, partly in the form of family possessions, which were worked by free clients or dependents as well as slaves. It was the nobility, too, which controlled the temple land ...The commoner owned his own plot of land in the city-state, but as a member of a family rather than as an individual ... The clients consisted of three categories: (1) the well-to-do dependents of the temple, such as the temple administrators and more important craftsmen; (2) the great mass of the temple personnel; and (3) the dependents of the nobility. Most of the clients in the first two categories got small plots of temple land (but only as temporary possessions), although some got rations of food and wool. The clients of the nobles, who worked their estates, were no doubt also paid in accordance with similar arrangements (1049).  The rest of the land-that is, the land not owned by the temple or the nobility-belonged to the ordinary citizens of the community, probably more than half of the population. These free citizens or commoners were organized in large patriarchal families and also in patriarchal clans and town communities (1040)."
Kramer notes the importance of the family in Sumerian culture, and discusses marriage, woman's rights and status, and the standing of children.  "The basic unit of Sumerian society was, as with us, the family, whose members were knit closely together by love, respect, and mutual obligations. Marriage was arranged by the parents, and the betrothal was legally recognized as soon as the groom presented a bridal gift to the father. The betrothal was often consummated with a contract inscribed on a tablet (1063).  [However] marriage in ancient Sumer, and indeed in the ancient Near East in general, was usually a practical arrangement in which the carefully weighed shekel counted more than love's hot desire (3189).  A woman in Sumer had certain important legal rights: she could hold property, engage in business, and qualify as a witness. But her husband could divorce her on relatively light grounds, and if she had no children, he could marry a second wife. Children were under the absolute authority of their parents, who could disinherit them or even sell them into slavery (1066)."

"The average Sumerian house was a small one-story, mud-brick structure consisting of several rooms usually grouped around an open court. The well-to-do Sumerian, on the other hand, probably lived in a two-story house of about a dozen rooms, built of brick and plastered and whitewashed both inside and out  (1211)."

Slavery was an accepted part of Sumerian society. Slaves were mostly owned and exploited by the nobility, wealthy land owners, and the temples.  Much of Sumer's infrastructure was probably constructed in whole, or in part, by slave labor. There were laws governing slaves and slaves had certain rights and privileges.  Kramer states: "Slavery was a recognized institution, and temples, palaces, and rich estates owned slaves and exploited them for their own benefit. Many slaves were prisoners of war, although not necessarily foreigners since they could be fellow Sumerians from a neighboring city defeated in battle. Sumerian slaves were recruited in other ways. Freemen might be reduced to slavery as a punishment for certain offenses. Parents could sell their children as slaves in time of need, or a man might turn over his entire family to creditors in payment of a debt, although for no longer than three years. The slave was the property of his master like any other chattel. He could be branded and flogged and was severely punished if he attempted to escape. On the other hand, it was to his master's advantage that his slave stay strong and healthy, and slaves were therefore usually well treated. They even had certain legal rights: they could engage in business, borrow money, and buy their freedom. If a slave, male or female, married a free person, the children were free. The sale price of a slave varied with the market and the individual involved; an average price for a grown man was twenty shekels, which was at times less than the price for an ass (1063)."

From the abundant Sumerian statues "we learn a good deal about Sumerian appearance and dress. The men either were clean shaven or wore long beards and long hair parted in the middle. The most common form of dress was a kind of flounced skirt, over which long cloaks of felt were sometimes worn. Later the chiton, or long skirt, took the place of the flounced skirt. Covering the skirt was a big fringed shawl, which was carried over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm free. Women often wore dresses which looked like long tufted shawls, covering them from head to foot and leaving only the right shoulder bare. Their hair was usually parted in the middle and braided into a heavy pigtail, which was then wound around the head. They often wore elaborate headdresses consisting of hair ribbons, beads, and pendants (1318)."

What about Sumerian personality and character?  What were their values?   They apparently thought highly of themselves and their accomplishments.  "They considered themselves a kind of 'chosen people,' 'the salt of the earth,' as it were ... The Sumerians thought of themselves as a rather special and hallowed community more intimately related to the gods than mankind in general - a community noteworthy not only for its material wealth and possessions, not only for its powerful kings, but also for it honored spiritual leaders ... a community which all the ... gods ... had selected as their abode  (3641)."  

The Sumerians tended to be a competitive and passionate people, prone to jealousy and easily angered.   Kramer stresses this theme repeatedly:  "Spiritually and psychologically, they laid great stress on ambition and success, pre eminence and prestige, honor and recognition. The Sumerian was deeply conscious of his personal rights and resented any encroachment on them, whether by his king, his superior, or his equal (84).  The Sumerians could never have come as far or achieved as much either materially or spiritually, had it not been for one very special psychological drive which motivated much of their behavior and deeply colored their way of life the ambitious, competitive, aggressive, and seemingly far from ethical drive for pre eminence and prestige, for victory and success 3366.  One of the major motivating forces of Sumerian behavior [was] the drive for superiority and pre eminence with its great stress on competition and success (3180) ... the driving ambition for victory over a rival  (3368) ... the rather one sided emphasis on rivalry and superiority (3758).   [This] aggressive penchant for controversy and the ambitious drive for pre eminence provided no little of the psychological motivation which sparked and sustained the material and cultural advances for which the Sumerians are not unjustly noted: irrigation expansion, technological invention, monumental building, the development of a system of writing and education (3410).   If I am not mistaken, hatred played a rather dominant role in Sumerian behavior ... the Sumerian political, economic, and educational institutions were deeply colored by aggressive competition, by a drive for prestige and pre eminence, which must have inspired a high degree of hatred, scorn, and contempt (3320).  Spiritually and psychologically, they laid great stress on ambition and success, pre eminence and prestige, honor and recognition. The Sumerian was deeply conscious of his personal rights and resented any encroachment on them, whether by his king, his superior, or his equal (84)."

"On the level of ethics and morals, the documents reveal that the Sumerians cherished and valued goodness and truth, law and order, justice and freedom, wisdom and learning, courage and loyalty in short, all of man's most desirable virtues and qualities (3356).  [There are] numerous references to the special protective treatment accorded to widows, orphans, and refugees as well as to the poor and oppressed (3358).   friendship and loyalty were highly prized in Sumer. The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu [mythical Sumerian heroes] was legendary and proverbial throughout the ancient Near East (3284)."  

Sumerian literature is infused with expressions regarding the value of life and the quest for success.  Kramer: "Love of life pervades Sumerian civilization in all its forms and aspects: social, political, economic, and religious (3337).   While all peoples and cultures cherish life and value it dearly, the Sumerians clung to it with particular tenacity because of their theological conviction that after death the emasculated spirit descended to the dark and dreary nether world, where life was at best but a dismal, wretched reflection of life on earth (3341).  Closely allied to the love of life was the value put on material prosperity and well being. The Sumerians prized highly wealth and possessions, rich harvests, well stocked granaries, folds and stalls filled with cattle large and small, successful hunting on the plain and good fishing in the sea (3344).  The pursuit of wealth, no doubt, played an important role in Sumerian life (3356)."  

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