Sex, Violence, Politics and Alcohol: Ancient Riddles Touched On Modern Topics

Jerusalem, February 8, 2012 — Researchers in Israel and Germany have tried to do the seemingly impossible: solve six riddles, in an ancient language, on a 3,500-year-old damaged tablet that hasn't been seen since 1976.

The riddles were recently translated from Akkadian — a Semitic language whose two main dialects are Babylonian and Assyrian — by Nathan Wasserman, a professor in theInstitute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Michael Streck, a professor at theAltorientalisches Institut at Universität Leipzig. Their research appears in the latest edition of the journal Iraq (page 123).

Because artifacts containing Old Babylonian riddles are extremely rare, this collection is important for the understanding of wisdom literature typical of the Ancient Near East.

Although ancient, the riddles touch on contemporary topics: sex, violence, politics, alcohol and, for good measure, mothers.

One of the brainteasers reads as follows:

He gouged out the eye:
It is not the fate of a dead man.
He cut the throat: A dead man (-Who is it?)
The governor.

"This riddle describes the power of a governor, namely to act as a judge who punishes or sentences to death," the researchers explain.

Another riddle reads:

Like a fish in a fish pond,
like troops before the king. (— What is it?)
A broken bow.

According to the researchers, "A possible interpretation of the riddle is that a broken bow is as useless as a fish which is not caught but still swims in the well, or as troops which do not fight in battle but remain in front of the king."

Some of the brainteasers are less obvious:

In your mouth and your teeth (or: your urine)
constantly stared at you
the measuring vessel of your lord. (— What is it?)

In this instance the researchers tentatively suggest that the author might be referring to the taste of beer in the mouth.

Another conundrum, which is missing some words, reads:

… of your mother
is by the one who has intercourse (with her) ( — What/who is it?)

While intriguing, this riddle remains unsolved.

The riddles are among many fascinating texts studied in a project called Sources of Early Akkadian Literature: A Text Corpus of Babylonian and Assyrian Literary Texts from the 3rd and 2nd Millennia BCE. Headed by professors Wasserman and Streck, the project is a collaboration between the Institute of Archaeology of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Altorientalisches Institut of the University of Leipzig, and is funded by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (G.I.F.).

The researchers based their translation on a copy of the tablet’s inscription published in 1976 by the scholar J.J. van Dijk, when the tablet was housed at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Following several recent wars and the museum's pillaging in 2003, the tablet's current whereabouts are unknown.

The text uses many logograms — visual symbols representing words rather than the sounds that make up the words. Understanding the text is difficult because the tablet is damaged, some of the words are missing, and, according to van Dijk, the inscription appears to be a school exercise which shows “very careless writing.”

As for why modern society is interested in ancient puzzles, Prof. Wasserman says: “Riddles, like proverbs or fables, provide us an intimate insight into ancient people's minds, beyond the monolithic world-view of royal ideology and official religious beliefs. It is, therefore, not surprising, perhaps even comforting, to find that we are immediately connected to texts of these rare genres.”