Proverbs in and out of context: Akkadian proverbs and popular sayings between scribal school and everyday life

Flavia Pacelli – Università degli Studi “La Sapienza” di Roma

In several studies on Mesopotamian literature the word “proverb” has been often used in a conventional way to define a genre that involves different types of modern compositions, including short fables, anecdotes, popular sayings and other texts (Lambert, 1960). The Sumerian proverb collections have always characterized a large part of Mesopotamian literature and they have been discussed by many scholars, including S. N. Kramer, E.I. Gordon and B.Alster. Some scholars have also analysed the development of Sumerian proverbs in later literatures. On the other hand, Akkadian proverbs and popular sayings have been object of occasional and discontinuous studies due to their minor account and their dissemination within other texts. The presence of proverbs in real collections which were produced and used inthe scribal schools, does not allow us to examine the actual context where these expressions were usually employed. However,we suppose that proverbs and popular sayings had their origin in the popular and commoncontext, as Alster notes: they “were used in the everyday life” (Alster, 1997).Indeed, we can assume that some texts, like Neo-Assyrian letters and inscriptions, provide a more ordinary context where proverbial expressions where used: these texts show how often Assyrian scribes use proverbs, metaphorical formulas and symbolic figures -as domestic and wild animals-in their compositions. As tradition, animals are the main characters of many popular sayings and they carry human behaviours in order to provide the reader with moral values. The aim of this paper is to outline a brief overview of the Akkadian proverbial expressions and popular sayings in Akkadian cuneiform sources, giving special attention to the animal symbolism, between their curricular context and the “daily life” texts.