Exploring the Symbolic Value of Animals in Sumerian Fables Vis-à-Vis Sumerograms

Jill Marcum, University of Oxford

Sumerian fables are attested as early as the EDIIIa period. Forming a subgenre of what is known as ‘wisdom literature,’ fables are short narratives that utilize anthropomorphized animals to impart conventional wisdom. Like proverbs, fables “belong to the speech of everyday life” (Alster 1997); as such, they were among the first compositions that young scribes learned to write.

Much like written language, fables traffic in tradition and “habitual connection” (Peirce 1885) in order to convey their meaning.  This meaning is so strong that it can be carried even via elliptical (truncated) renderings. The animals in fables—whether those of the Sumerians, of Aesop, or modern incarnations—carry moral or abstract values. As Falkowitz (1980) notes, consistently and extensively employed animal images can become culturally ingrained as rhetorical topoi: the fox is cunning, the bee is busy.  Cultural context is key, however, and these values may differ from contemporary Western symbolic or ethical norms.

Many proto-cuneiform pictograms of animals can carry forth into Sumerian abstract meanings as well.  This paper seeks to explore what connections, if any, can be drawn between the symbolic value of animals as expressed in collections of Sumerian fables and the semiotic value of animal-derived Sumerograms.