Four Thousand Year Old Wisdom

I've been compiling a list of Sumerian proverbs for a project I'm working on. Sumerian culture thrived in what is now Southern Iraq for 2000 years from about 4000 BCE to 2000 BCE, after which the principle language of the period changed to Akkadian, After this, the Sumerian language lived on as a literary language, much like Latin in the Middle Ages.

Knowledge of the Sumerians and their language was lost for over a thousand years, and only rediscovered again in the 1800s AD.

It's difficult to date these proverbs exactly - they were passed down through generations of scribes and recorded in collections on clay tablets. Some are likely very old and may even pre-date writing, others might be much younger (say, a mere 2500 years old). Many of them have obscure meanings, their idiom being lost to us. Others, though, are quite pithy and still resonate - though maybe not for the same reason they once did! I've put together twenty-five of the most interesting ones here for your pleasure. The more I read about the ancient world, the more I think that people haven't changed all that much across the millennia.


1. Into an open mouth, a fly enters.
A caution against the dangers of gossip?

2. There is commerce in a city, but a fisherman caught the food
The original 'Farmers Feed Cities' bumpersticker.

3. One does not return borrowed bread.
Literally true, I suppose.

4. A heart never created hatred. Speech created hatred.
We aren't born cruel, after all.

5. Like an ox with diarrhoea, he leaves a long trail behind him.
I love the imagery...

6. A goat says to another goat: "I, too, butt my head".
That's one woke goat.

7. When a burglar makes a hole, he makes it narrow.
They didn't have pianos, yet.

8. A shepherd's sex appeal is his penis, a gardener's sex appeal is his hair.
Not sure what to make of this, but will cultivate both to hedge my bets.

9. Your worthiness is the result of chance.
This one needs a modern equivalent, I feel, as modern worthies seem completely oblivious to the fact.

10. No matter how small they are, they are still blocks of lapis lazuli.
Lapis lazuli was one of the most precious materials.

11. There is no baked cake in the middle of the dough.
It's not over till it's over?

12. He is fearful, like a man unacquainted with beer.
Speaks for itself, really.

13. What is in one's mouth is not in one's hand.
Actions speak louder than words?

14. To be wealthy and demand more is an affront to a god.
This one doesn't seem to have made it to the modern western world.

15. In the reed beds, the lion does not eat his acquaintance.
I should hope not.

16. If the one in the lead is being consumed by fire, those behind him don't say:
"Where is the one in the lead?"
Unless the leader is Mark Zuckerberg.

17. Here I am in a house of brick and bitumen, and still a lump of clay falls on my head.
Planned obsolescence?

18. You should hold a kid goat in your left hand and a bribe in your right.
The goat is to make an offering to a god at the temple, the bribe to get somewhere with the government at the palace. The temple and the palace were the two prongs of government. So this is basically a guide for how to get ahead in life.

19. 'Give me' is for the king. 'Be so Kind' is for the cupbearer's son, 'Do me a favour' is for the administrator.
Diff'rent strokes... different ways to get things done.

20. The lives of the poor do not survive their deaths.
This one needs some explanation. Sumerians believed that after death, people went to the underworld where they had a miserable existence toiling, eating dust, and wearing garments made from old bird feathers. This could be improved by giving them burial gifts and by honouring the dead with offerings of food, water, and prayer. Those who didn't get a proper burial, or who weren't properly honoured after death, could come back as malicious ghosts. So, what what this may be saying is that the poor couldn't honour their dead properly, so they had no existence in the underworld. Or possibly they are referring to the lack of an inheritance for their children.

21. My tongue, like a runaway donkey, will not turn back.
I guess you like the taste of flies, then?

22. I looked into the water. My destiny was drifting past.
Timeless, really. The Queen Street bridge over the Don River here in Toronto bears the words "The River I Step In Is Not The River I Stand In" which is a paraphrasing of Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice”, all of which compare the flow of life to the flow of a river.

23. A sniffing dog enters all houses.
Kind of like the flu.

24. If the lion heats the soup, who would say "It is no good"?
Hopefully a whistleblower will step forward.

25. My donkey was not destined to run quickly; he was destined to bray!
The older I get, the more I want to embrace this sentiment.

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