Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Scribal Hermeneutics and the Twelve Gates of Ludlul Bel Nemeqi

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Scribal Hermeneutics and the Twelve Gates of Ludlul Bel Nemeqi

Article excerpt

Ludlul bel nemeqi, "I will praise the lord of wisdom," is a Standard Babylonian poem that dates back to the late second millennium B.C.E. (1) As is well known, the poem is a retrospective, first-person account narrated by a certain Subsi-mesre-Sakkan. In the course of the poem, this man describes how Marduk became angry with him and caused him to suffer both social alienation (Tablet I) and physical affliction (Tablet II). But eventually Marduk had mercy on the sufferer and restored his health (Tablets III and IV?) and social standing (Tablet V). The present study is concerned with a passage that is the centerpiece of the sufferer's restoration, V 42-53. (2) These lines name twelve gates from the city of Babylon, one in each of the lines. (3) At each gate, identified in the first half of the line, the protagonist of the poem is granted something positive, which is described in the second half of the line. For example, the sufferer states in V 50, "In the 'Gate of Releasing Sighing' my sighing was released." The sufferer's passing through the twelve gates symbolically rehabilitates and reintegrates him into society, marking the end of his trials and the beginning of his Marduk-renewed life. My thesis, briefly stated, is that the author of Ludlul derived the substance of what the sufferer received at each gate--and therefore the textual substance of the second half of each of these poetic lines--from the names of the gates themselves. (4) He accomplished this via the same kinds of learned scribal interpretive methods used in commentary and explanatory texts, which recent scholarship has expounded. (5) That is, the author of Ludlul connected the name of the gates and the description of what the sufferer received at each by way of applied translations (6) of the Sumerian gate names, sound plays on the words and syllables comprising the names of the gates (homonymy/etymology), graphic plays on the cuneiform signs with which the names are written (etymography), (7) and in at least one case a mythological interpretation based on the gate's name.

The (unknown) author responsible for composing these lines did not feel compelled to use a consistent hermeneutical method throughout the passage. In some lines he uses each part of the gate's name to derive the description in the second half of the line. In others, he ignores some elements in the name to arrive at his description. And in still others he uses elements in the name of the gate twice. Like so many literary artisans and interpreters after him, he seems to have been quite pragmatic in his literary modus operandi, which the line-by-line exposition demonstrates below.

The poem's literary features and institutional setting provide the contexts within which the present thesis should be evaluated. As the text shows, the poem utilizes a high literary register of Akkadian and has a penchant for rare words, technical vocabulary, paranomasia, and alliteration. (8) Institutionally, Ludlul reflects the context of the learned scribal circles of the conjurers (asipu) and their professional concerns. (9) The author of this poem is therefore precisely the kind of scribe from whom we could expect this kind of scribal creativity.


Before turning to the actual text, there are four preliminary concerns that require attention.

First, I state a basic assumption. As demonstrated below, lines 42 and 48-50 clearly show a connection between the name of a gate and the description that follows it in the second half of the line--indeed, the second half of each line is based on a translation of the Sumerian name. Given these indisputable cases, I assume that the other lines contain a similar, though sometimes less transparent connection between appellative and description. This is a reasonable assumption, I think; but it may be incorrect. The reader will have to judge. (10)

Second, there is the issue of methodological control. …

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