The Kesh Temple Hymn (or more precisely, Liturgy to Nintud on the Creation of Man and Woman) is in the long dead Sumerian language and written in cuneiform that was scratched with a stylus into fresh clay tablets and dried in the sun, as were all writings in Mesopotamia at the time. That was about 2600 B.C., or four thousand six hundred years ago. At some point a century or two afterward the tablets were baked hard as rock in a fire when the city was burned by some conqueror or another and the city archives were buried in the ruins. Over the years they were covered by sand and protected from all the history that happened on top of them. Mesopotamia is a vast scattered library of such tablets now, a half a million or more in museums already, and who knows how many more still in the ground. Archaeologists uncovered the Kesh Temple Hymn in the first decades of the 20th century, and one of the world’s few living readers of cuneiform–it is incredibly difficult to read for those of us raised on alphabets–translated the seventy three lines of text by 1920. Its significance was recognized immediately. This anonymous temple prayer, a Liturgy to Nintud on the Creation of Man and Woman, is humanity’s first known literature. A century later and we’ve still found nothing earlier. It’s not the first writing–that had been around a couple centuries already–but the first literature. We consider it literature because the words are so pretty. There’s a cadence, a lilt. There’s art. It is something very special written by an unknown scribe with a talent for written expression, and that was a brand new thing in the world:
The princely one, the princely one came forth from the house. Enlil, the princely one, came forth from the house. The princely one came forth royally from the house. Enlil lifted his glance over all the lands, and the lands raised themselves to Enlil. The four corners of heaven became green for Enlil like a garden. Kesh was positioned there for him with head uplifted, and as Kesh lifted its head among all the lands, Enlil spoke the praises of Kesh. Nisaba was its decision-maker; with its words she wove it intricately like a net. Written on tablets it was held in her hands: House, platform of the Land, important fierce bull!
You’d have to be a Sumerologist to know what all that is about exactly. You get the general idea, though. And dig that repetition, like chanting. The princely one, four times. In my head I see a line of priests, repeating it. The ways of writing still reflected the manners of speech then.
But something extra special in the text immediately stuck out for me. This:
….with its words she wove it intricately like a net. Written on tablets it was held in her hands….
Because that is actually a description of writing itself. Perhaps the very first description we know of, though I rather doubt it. The Sumerians had been writing documents–lists, letters and the like–for a couple centuries by 2600 BC. Indeed, schools for scribes opened not long after this was written. Doubtless writing is described earlier, but prosaically. A Sumerian skill set. But these two lines (verb phrases, actually, each only half a sentence) might have been the first time anyone ever described the act of writing so poetically, weaving the words intricately like a net. And it’s that metaphor which amazes me, the use of weaving to describe story telling in written words. Though perhaps the author was not talking about story telling per se, but of writing down the words in cuneiform itself…
…which, in seventy three closely spaced lines, might well look like a intricately woven net. I’m more inclined to think that is what was meant, now that I’ve visualized it. In the five thousand years since writing was invented by the Sumerians, written metaphors have become very rich and very subtle, very abstract and quite opaque. But when writing was new metaphors were typically visual, things you could see. And line after line of cuneiform etched into a clay tablet could look, with a little imagination, like a seine net stretched across a stream. Today it’s the sentences we weave into a story, and few writers now–John McPhee, maybe–would ever think of a seine net at all. Or even know what one is. Besides, our alphabet doesn’t look like netlike, not in the least. I’m not sure what it looks like, besides letters. Those letters used to look like something–they began, most of them, as Egyptian hieroglyphs, which began as pictographs, which began as things–but now they’re as neutral and metaphor free as a writing system can be.
But still, I’m struck by the thought that the weaving metaphor is still used 4500 years later. We still weave stories, like a net in fact. Certainly more like a net than a sweater or a pair of socks or a bird cage cover. A net makes sense that way. Lateral, linear, spaced. Maybe there’s a direct metaphorical connection between Sumerian scribes weaving prayers into nets of cuneiform and the weavers of tales today tapping things into the ether. Or maybe not. It’s just astonishing to think that writing, though five thousand years old, is such a new thing that Bronze Age metaphors still apply.