Kramer, Samuel Noach
The Sumerians were a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people who flourished in southern
Babylonia from the beginning of the fourth to the end of the third millennium B. C.
During this long stretch of time the Sumerians, whose racial and linguistic affiliations
are still unclassifiable, represented the dominant cultural group of the entire
Near East. This cultural dominance manifested itself in three directions:
- It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of
writing which was adopted by nearly all the peoples of the Near East and without
which the cultural progress of western Asia would have been largely impossible.
- The Sumerians developed religious and spiritual concepts together with a
remarkably well integrated pantheon which influenced profoundly all the peoples
of the Near East, including the Hebrews and the Greeks. Moreover, by way of Judaism,
Christianity, and Mohammedanism, not a few of these spiritual and religious
concepts have permeated the modern civilized world.
- The Sumerians produced a vast and highly developed literature, largely poetic
in character, consisting of epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs
and "words of wisdom." These compositions are inscribed in cuneiform script
on clay tablets which date largely from approximately 1750 B. C. In the
course of the past hundred years, approximately five b thousand such literary
pieces have been excavated in the mounds of ancient Sumer. Of this number,
over two thousand, more than two-thirds of our source material, were excavated
by the University of Pennsylvania in the mound covering ancient Nippur in the
course of four grueling campaigns lasting from 1889 to 1900; these Nippur tablets
and fragments represent, therefore, the major source for the reconstruction
of the Sumerian compositions. As literary products, these Sumerian compositions
rank high among the creations of civilized man. They compare not unfavorably
with the ancient Greek and Hebrew masterpieces, and like them mirror the
spiritual and intellectual life of an otherwise little known civilization.
Their significance for a proper appraisal of the cultural and spiritual
development of the Near East can hardly be overestimated. The Assyrians and
Babylonians took them over almost in toto. The Hittites translated them into
their own language and no doubt imitated them widely. The form and contents
of the Hebrew literary creations and to a certain extent even those of the
ancient Greeks were profoundly influenced by them. As practically the oldest
written literature of any significant amount ever uncovered, it furnishes new,
rich, and unexpected source material to the archaeologist and anthropologist,
to the ethnologist and student of folklore, to the students of the history
of religion and of the history of literature.