Akkadian literature

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Akkadian literature is the ancient literature written in the Akkadian language (Assyrian and Babylonian dialects) in Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylonia) during the period spanning the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age (roughly the 23rd to 6th centuries BC).[1][2]

Drawing on the traditions of Sumerian literature, the Babylonians compiled a substantial textual tradition of mythological narrative, legal texts, scientific works, letters and other literary forms.

Literature in Akkadian society[edit]

Most of what we have from the Babylonians was inscribed in cuneiform with a metal stylus on tablets of clay, called laterculae coctiles by Pliny the Elder; papyrus seems to have been also employed, but it has perished.[3]

There were libraries in most towns and temples; an old Sumerian proverb averred that "he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn." Women as well as men learned to read and write, and in Semitic times, this involved a knowledge of the extinct Sumerian language, and a complicated and extensive syllabary. The Babylonians' very advanced systems of writing, science and mathematics contributed greatly to their literary output.[3]

Many works of Akkadian literature were commissioned by kings that had scribes and scholars in their service. Some of these works served to celebrate the king or the divine, while others recorded information for religious practices or medicine. Poetry, proverbs, folktales, love lyrics, and accounts of disputes were all incorporated into Akkadian literature.[4]

Relation to other ancient literatures[edit]

Cardiff Castle (Wales). Castle apartments: Library (1870s) - Allegory of Assyrian literature (relief by Thomas Nicholls).

A considerable amount of Babylonian literature was translated from Sumerian originals, and the language of religion and law long continued to be the old agglutinative language of Sumer. Vocabularies, grammars, and interlinear translations were compiled for the use of students, as well as commentaries on the older texts and explanations of obscure words and phrases. The characters of the syllabary were all arranged and named, and elaborate lists of them were drawn up.[3]

Assyrian culture and literature came from Babylonia, but even here there was a difference between the two countries. There was little in Assyrian literature that was original, and education, general in Babylonia, was mostly restricted to a single class in the northern kingdom. In Babylonia, it was of very old standing. Under the second Assyrian empire, when Nineveh had become a great centre of trade, Aramaic — the language of commerce and diplomacy — was added to the number of subjects that the educated class was required to learn.[3]

Under the Seleucids, Greek was introduced into Babylon, and fragments of tablets have been found with Sumerian and Assyrian (i.e. Semitic Babylonian) words transcribed into Greek letters.[3]

Notable works[edit]

According to A. Leo Oppenheim, the corpus of cuneiform literature amounted to around 1,500 texts at any one time or place, approximately half of which, at least from the first millennium, is extant in fragmentary form, and the most common genres included (in order of predominance) are omen texts, lexical lists, ritual incantations, cathartic and apotropaic conjurations, historical and mythological epics, fables and proverbs.[5]

Annals, chronicles and historical epics[edit]

The Assyrian dialect of Akkadian is particularly rich in royal inscriptions from the end of the 14th century BC onward, for example the epics of Adad-nārārī, Tukulti-Ninurta, and Šulmānu-ašarēdu III and the annals which catalogued the campaigns of the neo-Assyrian monarchs. The earliest historical royal epic is, however, that of Zimri-Lim (c. 1710–1698 BC short) of Mari. Similar literature of the middle Babylonian period is rather poorly preserved with a fragmentary epic of the Kassite period, that of Adad-šuma-uṣur and of Nabû-kudurrī-uṣur I and Marduk.[6]

The chronicle traditional is first attested in the compositions of the early Iron Age which hark back to earlier times, such as the Chronicle of Early Kings, the Dynastic Chronicle, Chronicle P and the Assyrian Synchronistic History. A series of fifteen neo to late Babylonian Chronicles have been recovered which narrate the period spanning Nabû-nasir (747–734 BC) to Seleucus III Ceraunus (243–223 BC) and were derived from the political events described in Babylonian astronomical diaries.

Humorous literature[edit]

Exemplars of comical texts span the genres of burlesque to satire and include humorous love poems and riddles. “At the cleaners” is a tale of the dispute between an insolent scrubber and his client, a “sophomoric fop” who lectures the cleaner in ridiculous detail on how to launder his clothes, driving the exasperated cleaner to suggest that he lose no time in taking it to the river and doing it himself.[7] The Dialogue of Pessimism was seen as a saturnalia by Böhl, where master and servant switch roles, and as a burlesque by Speiser, where a fatuous master mouthes clichés and a servant echoes him. Lambert considered it a musing of a mercurial adolescent with suicidal tendencies.[8]

The Aluzinnu (“trickster,” a jester, clown or buffoon) text, extant in five fragments from the neo-Assyrian period concerns an individual, dābibu, ākil karṣi, “character assassin,” who made a living entertaining others with parodies, mimicry, and scatological songs. The Poor Man of Nippur provides a subversive narrative of the triumph of the underdog over his superior[9] while Ninurta-Pāqidāt's Dog Bite is a school text of a slapstick nature.[10]


The earliest Akkadian laws are the “Old Assyrian Laws” relating to the conduct of the commercial court of a trading colony in Anatolia, c. 1900 BC. The Laws of Eshnunna were a collection of sixty laws named for the city of its provenance and dating to around 1770 BC. The Code of Ḫammu-rapi, c. 1750 BC, was the longest of the Mesopotamian legal collections, extending to nearly three hundred individual laws and accompanied by a lengthy prologue and epilogue. The edict of Ammi-Saduqa, c. 1646 BC, was the last issued by one of Ḫammu-rapi’s successors.

The Middle Assyrian Laws date to the fourteenth century BC, over a hundred laws are extant from Assur. The Middle Assyrian Palace Decrees, known as the “Harem Edicts,” from the reigns of Aššur-uballiṭ I, c. 1360 BC, to Tukultī-apil-Ešarra I, c. 1076 BC, concern aspects of courtly etiquette and the severe penalties (flagellation, mutilation and execution) for flouting them. The Neo-Babylonian Laws number just fifteen, c. 700 BC, probably from Sippar.[11]


One of the most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh,[3] which first appears in Akkadian during the Old Babylonian period as a circa 1,000 line epic known by its incipit, šūtur eli šarrī, ‘‘Surpassing all other kings,’’ which incorporated some of the stories from the five earlier Sumerian Gilgamesh tales. A plethora of mid to late second millennium versions give witness to its popularity. The Standard Babylonian version, ša naqba īmeru, ‘‘He who saw the deep,’’ contains up to 3,000 lines on eleven tablets and a prose meditation on the fate of man on the twelfth which was virtually a word-for-word translation of the Sumerian “Bilgames and the Netherworld.” It is extant in 73 copies and was credited to a certain Sîn-lēqi-unninni[12] and arranged upon an astronomical principle. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. The whole story is a composite product, and it is probable that some of the stories are artificially attached to the central figure.[3]

Another epic was that of the "Creation" Enûma Eliš, whose object was to glorify Bel-Marduk by describing his contest with Tiamat, the dragon of chaos. In the first book, an account is given of the creation of the world from the primeval deep, and the birth of the gods of light. Then comes the story of the struggle between the gods of light and the powers of darkness, and the final victory of Marduk, who clove Tiamat asunder, forming the heaven from half of her body and the earth from the other. Marduk next arranged the stars in order, along with the sun and moon, and gave them laws they were never to transgress. After this, the plants and animals were created, and finally man. Marduk here takes the place of Ea, who appears as the creator in the older legends, and is said to have fashioned man from clay.[3]

The legend of Adapa, the first man — a portion of which was found in the record-office of the Egyptian king Akhenaton at Tell-el-Amarna — explains the origin of death. Adapa, while fishing, had broken the wings of the south wind, and was accordingly summoned before the tribunal of Anu in heaven. Ea counselled him not to eat or drink anything there. He followed this advice, and thus refused the food that would have made him and his descendants immortal.[3]

Among the other legends of Babylonia may be mentioned those of Namtar, the plague-demon; of Erra, the pestilence; of Etana and of Anzu. Hades, the abode of Ereshkigal or Allatu, had been entered by Nergal, who, angered by a message sent to her by the gods of the upper world, ordered Namtar to strike off her head. She, however, declared that she would submit to any conditions imposed on her, and would give Nergal the sovereignty of the earth. Nergal accordingly relented, and Allatu became the queen of the infernal world. Etana conspired with the eagle to fly to the highest heaven. The first gate, that of Anu, was successfully reached; but in ascending still farther to the gate of Ishtar, the strength of the eagle gave way, and Etanna was dashed to the ground. As for the storm-god Anzu, we are told that he stole the tablets of destiny, and therewith the prerogatives of Enlil. God after god was ordered to pursue him and recover them, but it would seem that it was only by a stratagem that they were finally regained.[3]

Omens, divination and incantation texts[edit]

The magnitude of omen literature within the Akkadian corpus is one of the peculiar distinguishing features of this language’s legacy. According to Oppenheim, 30% of all documents of this tradition are of this genre.[13] Exemplars of omen text appear during the earliest periods of Akkadian literature but come to their maturity early in the first millennium with the formation of canonical versions. Notable among these is the Enuma Anu Enlil (astrological omens), Šumma ālu (terrestrial omens), Šumma izbu (anomalous births), Alamdimmû (physiognomic omens), and Iškar Zaqīqu (dream omens). It is among this genre, also, that the Sakikkū (SA.GIG) “Diagnostic Handbook” belongs.

The practice of extispicy, divination through the entrails of animals, was perfected into a science over the millennia by the Babylonians and supporting texts were eventually gathered into a monumental handbook, the Bārûtu, extending over a hundred tablets and divided into ten chapters.[14] Divination, however, extended into other fields with, for example, the old Babylonian libanomancy texts, concerning interpreting portents from incense smoke,[15] being one and Bēl-nadin-šumi’s omen text on the flight paths of birds, composed during the reign of Kassite king Meli-Šipak, being another exemplar.[16]

Incantations form an important part of this literary heritage, covering a range of rituals from the sacred, Maqlû, "burning" to counter witchcraft, Šurpu, “incineration” to counter curses, Namburbi, to preempt inauspicious omens, Utukkū Lemnūtu (actually bilingual), to exorcise “Evil Demons,” and Bīt rimki, or “bath house,” the purification and substitution ceremony, to the mundane, Šà.zi.ga, “the rising of the heart,” potency spells, and Zu-buru-dabbeda, “to seize the ‘locust tooth’,” a compendium of incantations against field pests.[17]

Wisdom and didactic literature[edit]

A particularly rich genre of Akkadian texts was that represented by the moniker of “wisdom literature,” although there are differences in opinion concerning which works qualify for inclusion.[18] One of the earliest exemplars was the Dialogue between a Man and His God from the late Old Babylonian period. Perhaps the most notable were the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer (Ludlul bēl nēmeqi) and the Babylonian Theodicy. Included in this group are a number of fables or contest literature, in varying states of preservation, such as the Tamarisk and the Palm, the Fable of the Willow, Nisaba and Wheat (kibtu), the Ox and the Horse (Inum Ištar šurbutum, “When exalted Ishtar”), the Fable of the Fox, and the Fable of the Riding-donkey.[19]

W. G. Lambert and others include several popular sayings, and proverbs (both bilingual and Babylonian) together with the Lament of a Sufferer with a Prayer to Marduk, Counsels of Wisdom, Counsels of a Pessimist, and Advice to a Prince in this genre. “A Dialogue between Šūpê-amēli and His Father” (Šimâ milka) is a piece of wisdom literature in the manner of a deathbed debate from the Akkadian hinterland.[18] There are also Akkadian translations of earlier Sumerian works such as the Instructions of Shuruppak which are often considered belonging to this tradition.

Other genres[edit]

Besides the purely literary works, there were others of varied nature, including collections of letters, partly official, partly private. Among them the most interesting are the letters of Hammurabi, which have been edited by Leonard William King.[3]

List of works[edit]

The following gives the better-known extant works, excluding lexical and synonym lists.

Abnu šikinšuAdad-nārārī I EpicAdad-šuma-uṣur EpicAdapa and EnmerkarAdapa and the South WindAdvice to a PrinceAgushaya HymnAlamdimmûAluzinnu textArdat-liliAsakkū marṣūtuAšipus' Almanac (or Handbook) • At the cleanersAtra-ḫasīsAutobiography of Adad-guppīAutobiography of KurigalzuAutobiography of MardukBabylonian AlmanacBabylonian King ListBabylonian TheodicyBārûtuBirth legend of SargonBīt mēseriBīt rimkiBīt salā’ mêBullussa-rabi’s Hymn to GulaChronicle of Early KingsChronicle of the Market PricesChronicle of reign of ŠulgiChronicle PCode of HammurabiConsecration of a priestCounsels of a PessimistCounsels of WisdomCrimes and Sacrileges of Nabu-šuma-iškunCurse of AkkadCuthean Legend of Naram-SinDialogue between a Man and His GodDialogue of PessimismDingir.šà.dib.baDream of KurigalzuDynastic ChronicleDynastic ProphecyDynasty of Dunnum (Harab Myth) • Eclectic ChronicleEdict of Ammi-SaduqaEgalkura spells • Elegies Mourning the Death of TammuzEnlil and SudEnuma Anu EnlilEnûma ElišEpic of AnzuEpic of GilgamešEpic of the Kassite periodEpic of Nabû-kudurrī-uṣurEpic of the plague-god Erra (Erra and Išum) • EtanaFable of the FoxFable of the Riding-donkeyFable of the WillowGirra and ElamatumGreat Prayer to ŠamašGreat Prayer to NabûGreat Revolt Against Naram-SinHarem EdictsHemerology for Nazi-MaruttašHymn to Ištar (“Ištar 2”)Hymn to Ninurta as SaviorHymn to the Queen of NippurḪulbaziziInana's AscentIqqur IpušIškar ZaqīquIštar’s hell rideKalûtu catalogue • KAR 6KataduggûKedor-laomer textsKettledrum ritualsKing of Battle (šar tamḫāri) • Ki'utuLabbu mythLamaštuLament of a Sufferer with a Prayer to MardukLaws of EshnunnaLipšur litaniesLudlul bēl nēmeqiMaqlûMarduk's Address to the DemonsMarduk ProphecyMiddle Assyrian LawsMîs-pîMoon god and the cowMukīl rēš lemuttiMUL.APINMuššu'uNa'id-Šihu EpicNabonidus ChronicleNamburbiNamerimburrudûNeo-Babylonian LawsNergal and EreškigalNew year ritual-Akitu processionNigdimdimmûNinurta-Pāqidāt's Dog BiteNisaba and WheatOx and the HorsePazuzuPoor Man of NippurProphecy AQutāruRecipes against AntašubbaReligious ChronicleRoyal inscription of Simbar-ŠipakSag-gig-ga-meš (Muruṣ qaqqadi) • SakikkūSalmānu-ašarēdu III EpicSynchronistic HistoryA Syncretistic Hymn to IštarȘēru šikinšuŠammu šikinšuŠar PūḫîŠà.zi.gaŠēp lemuttiŠu'ilaŠulgi ProphecyŠumma āluŠumma amēlu kašipŠumma immeruŠumma IzbuŠumma liptuŠumma sinništu qaqqada rabâtŠurpuTākultu ritual texts • Tamarisk and the PalmTamītu OraclesTašritu hemerologyTukulti-Ninurta EpicTu-ra kìlib-ba • The therapeutic series UGU (Šumma amēlu muḫḫašu umma ukāl) • Uruhulake of GulaUruk King ListUruk ProphecyUšburrudaUtukkū LemnūtuVerse Account of NabonidusVision of the NetherworldWalker ChronicleWeidner ChronicleZimri-Lim EpicZi-pà incantationsZisurrû (Sag-ba Sag-ba) • Zu-buru-dabbeda

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Shin Shifra (2008). Words as Magic and the Magic in Words. Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, The Israeli Ministry of Defence Press (in Hebrew). These are transcriptions of Shifra's discourses on literature of the Ancient Near East, first broadcast as a "University on the Air" course on the Israeli Army Radio.


  1. ^ Wilson, Epiphanius (1 June 2006). Babylonian and Assyrian Literature. Echo Library. ISBN 9781406804898 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ Silvestro Fiore, Voices from the Clay: The Development of Assyro-Babylonian Literature. U. of Oklahoma Press.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Babylonia and Assyria". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–112.
  4. ^ Lenzi, Alan (2020-01-10). "Introduction". An Introduction to Akkadian Literature: Contexts and Content. Penn State Press. ISBN 978-1-64602-030-0.
  5. ^ A. Leo Oppenheim (1977). Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. University Of Chicago Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 9780226631868.
  6. ^ Jack M. Sasson (2005). "Comparative Observations on the Near Eastern Epic Traditions". In John M. Foley (ed.). Companion to Ancient Epic. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 221.
  7. ^ UET 6/2, 414
  8. ^ Benjamin R. Foster (1974). "Humor and Cuneiform Literature". JANES. 6: 82.
  9. ^ J. S. Cooper (Jul 1975). "Structure, Humor, and Satire in the Poor Man of Nippur". Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 27 (3): 163–174. doi:10.2307/1359242. JSTOR 1359242. S2CID 163822119.
  10. ^ A. R. George (1993). "Ninurta-Pāqidāt's Dog Bite, and Notes on Other Comic Tales". Iraq. 55: 63–75. doi:10.2307/4200367. JSTOR 4200367. S2CID 192947135.
  11. ^ D. L. Baker (2009). Tight Fists Or Open Hands?: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law. Wm. B. Eerdmans. pp. 4–6.
  12. ^ A. R. George (2003). The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volume 1. Oxford University Press. pp. 22–33, 379.
  13. ^ W. Hallo (2009). The world's oldest literature: studies in Sumerian belles-lettres. Brill. p. 7. ISBN 9789004173811.
  14. ^ Ulla Koch-Westenholz (2000). Babylonian Liver Omens: The Chapters Manzazu, Padanu, and Pan Takalti of the Babylonian Extispicy Series Mainly from Assurbanipal's Library. Museum Tusculanum. p. 9.
  15. ^ I. L. Finkel (1983). "A New Piece of Libanomancy". Archiv für Orientforschung. 29: 50–57.
  16. ^ Nicla De Zorzi (2009). "Bird Divination in Mesopotamia - New Evidence From BM 108874". KASKAL: Rivista di storia, ambienti e culture del Vicino Oriente Antico. 6: 91–94.
  17. ^ A. R. George and Junko Taniguchi (2010). "The Dogs of Ninkilim, part two: Babylonian rituals to counter field pests" (PDF). Iraq. LXXII: 79–148. doi:10.1017/S0021088900000607. S2CID 190713244.
  18. ^ a b Victor Avigdor Hurowitz (2007). Richard J. Clifford (ed.). Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel. SBL. pp. xi–xiii, 37–51.
  19. ^ Marianna E. Vogelzang (1991). "Some Questions About the Akkadian Disputes". In aG.J. Reinink and aH.L.J. Vanstiphout (ed.). Dispute poems and dialogues in the ancient and mediaeval Near East. Peeters. p. 47.