Šumerian Society

Recently, science described the ancient society, pointing to the periods when the craft was separated from agriculture and when the priesthood got separated from the craftsmen. However, when we speak on Šumer such a scheme does not work: in the earliest pictographic texts from Uruk and Jemdet-Nasr there were already signs for the designation of administrative, industrial, priestly, military and craft positions. Consequently, no one was separated from anyone, and people of different social destinies lived together in the very first years of the ancient civilization.


Every society is a single living organism that needs various ways of survival and functioning; therefore it is necessary to recognize the existence of this body's parts designed to perform a variety of functions. The hand can not be replaced by the pancreas, and the leg - by the circulatory system. They are absolutely different in their purpose organs and they exist in the single body. Thus the same thing relates to people: because of his biological peculiarities a person, born to be a warrior, would have never become a farmer, and vice versa. At the very dawn of civilization, man found his place in life only on the basis of personal qualities, as there was no such technology of social relations, in which an incapable person could occupy someone's else place.

Therefore, we need to talk about a structure of society that is semi-biological, and where each member of the social organism performed only a function inherent from nature. The Indian varnas system did not emerge from scratch; the Šumerian, Egyptian, and Hittite sources prove the division of the oldest human society into four main strata: community farmers, craftsmen-merchants, warriors and priests. And the ruler of such a society necessarily had to combine priestly and military functions.

Each of those strata had its own worldview, based on its biosocial nature and on the constant pastime experience:

1. A farmer who lived in the community worked on his own piece of land without bending his back. Within a year, staying at the same place, he saw how the sun, the moon and the planets made their way around him,as well as simultaneously with the movement of the planets, the seeds grew and developed. Therefore, the image of the universe for him was the World Tree - a symbol of stable internal development, the projection of his own body around which the world rotated according to the right, divine order. The farmer was calm, slow, confident, he was ready at any time to repel people who encroached on his land. He loved what was close to him, and did not think of far lands. The farmer fully supported the tradition and hopes for the early return of the good old times, which should be repeated, as the seasons repeated.

2. A warrior did not like a permanent place and tradition. He preferred to create a tradition by himself, subdueing territories out of the boundaries of his native community and creating monuments of his glory on them. His image of the world was the path that was paved to spread his will to every possible space and time. The warrior obeyed in order to command by himself later. He preferred to go beyond the boundaries of tradition and world order only until the time had come to include his deeds into this order. Having accomplished his exploits, he became a conservative and forbade young people to repeat his path, because of being jealous of them for future glory.

3. A craftsman-merchant constantly improved his skills, striving for increasing accuracy of performance and having the beauty of the product as a super goal. The world for him was full of the most diverse connections and relations - both between objects and people. Therefore, paying tribute to tradition, he did not believe in the absolute truth of its prescriptions, although tradition itself did not get an open conflict with them. His image of the world was Heaven with countless stars and planets, which included all the primary world wisdom and did not contain more than what there was in it. He liked measure, number, and proportion of things. He loved things which got created for the first time and had not been predicted by any tradition, although it corresponded to its best examples.

4. A priest did not like unknown places and other people’s gods. He served his god in his temple, made sacrifices to the dead ancestors of his congeners, obeyed his sovereign. The task of the priest was to work with time, id est, the discovery of a permanent sequence of the relationship between gods and gods, gods and people, living and dead. The priest always worried about what had not already been there, or what had not been yet. He recreated the tradition and predicted the future, the main thing for him was the meaning of life. His way of thinking tended to get out of the real world power, his way of thinking was the depth of the water that took away the old life and gave birth to a new life.

In various ancient societies these properties were mixed in different proportions. Even having a cursory, superficial look at the monuments of Egyptian, Indian and Jewish cultures we are able to notice a distinct urge to get to know another world, the last mysteries of life and death, i.e., a strong priestly origin. But the Egyptian culture differs by its belligerence, the Indian culture by its affection for the earth, and the Jewish one is known for its love to wandering and commerce. As for the Šumerians, studying their political and economic documents and literary monuments allows us to come to the conclusion that according to their moral values the main thing was the farmer’s love to his workplace and the sense of a world order based on the rhythms of grain growth, with the necessary renewal of time in new year. The second distinguishing thing of the the artisan was the love to beauty and excellence. Military and priestly origin receded: the king never got absolute power in the country, even in case of deification; the priesthood performed typically bureaucratic (i.e., handicraft) work to maintain the statue of God or conduct rituals. In addition, the priesthood was not separated from the community and therefore had no political independence.

This preliminary theoretical reasoning is confirmed by the large number of texts that are available to us from Šumerian various historical epochs when the population of the Sumerian city-state was divided in the following way:

1. Nobility: the city ruler, the temple administration head, priests, members of the council of the community elders. in the order of family-community's or clan's and often individual ownership these people had tens and hundreds of hectares of communal land and exploited clients and slaves. Moreover, the ruler often used temple lands for his personal profit.

2. Ordinary community members had plots of communal land according to family-community ownership. They made up more than half the population.

3. Clients of the temple: a) members of the temple administration and artisans; b) people subordinated to them. They were former commune who had lost communal ties.

4. Slaves: a) slaves of the temple, little different from the lower categories of customers; b) slaves of private individuals (the number of these slaves was relatively small).

Thus, we see that the social structure of the Šumerian society was divided into two main economic sectors: the community and the temple. The individual attitude to nobility was determined by the amount of land. The population either treated its lands, or worked for the temple and large landowners, artisans were attached to the temple, and priests - to communal land.

In the early period of Šumerian history the ruler of the city was en ("lord, possessor"), or Ensi. He combined the functions of a priest, military leader, mayor and chairman of parliament. His duties included the following:

1. Managing the community cult, especially participation in the ceremony of the sacred marriage.

2. Managing construction works, especially temple construction and irrigation.

3. Commanding the army of those who depended on the temples and him personally.

4. Chairmanship in the people's assembly, especially in the council of the community elders.

En and his people traditionally had to ask permission for their actions from the people's assembly, consisting of "city boys" and "city elders". As for the existence of such an assembly, we learn about it mainly from the hymno-epic texts. As some of them show, even without having received the approval of the meeting or one of the chambers, nonethess, the ruler could decide on his venture. Subsequently, during the concentration of power in the hands of one political group, the role of the people's assembly completely fell to nothing.

In addition to the post of governor, from the Sumerian texts there is also known the title lugal (<lu2 + gal) - "big man", that is translated either as "king" or as "master" according to various context. For the first time this title appeared in the inscriptions of the rulers of the city of Kish, from where, very likely, it came from. Originally it was the title of military leader who was chosen among the Enes by the supreme gods of Šumer in the sacred Nippur (or in his city with the participation of the Nippur gods) and temporarily occupied the position of the host of the country with the dictator opportunities. But later kings were not occasionally chosen, but by inheritance, although during enthronement they still observed the old Nippur rite. Thus, the same person was at the same time an en of a city and a country's lugal, so the struggle for the title of lugal took place through all the history of Šumer. However, quite soon the difference between the Lugal and En titles became obvious. During the capture of Šumer by the Guteans, no Ensi had the right to wear the title of lugal, as it was taken by the invaders for themselves. And by the time of the III Dynasty of Ur, the Ensi were just officials of city administrations, completely subordinated to the will of the lugal.

Documents from the archives of the city of Shuruppak (XXVI century) show that this city was ruled by rotation, and the ruler got changed every year. Apparently, every rotation fell by lot not only on this or that person, but also on a certain territorial site or temple. This indicates the existence of a collegial governing intitution, which members were rotated to get the post of an eponymous elder. In addition, there is evidence of mythological texts about the order in the reign of the gods. Finally, the definition for the term of the lugal bala literally means "rotation", "turn". Does it mean that the earliest form of governing in Sumerian city-states was the rotated ruling of representatives of neighboring temples and territories? It is possible but difficult to prove.

As long as the ruler occupied the upper social ladder step, slaves huddled at the foot of this staircase. The Šumerian "slave" means "deflated, lowered". First of all, the modern slang verb "to lower", id est, "to deprive someone of the social status, submitting to himself as property", comes to mind. But we must also take into account the historical fact that very first slaves in history were prisoners of war (POW), and the Šumerian army fought against its opponents in the mountains of Zagros, so the word for the slave may just mean "deflated from the eastern mountains". Initially, only women and children were captured as prisoners, as the weapons were imperfect and it was difficult to convoy male captives. After being captured, they were often killed. But later, after the invention of bronze weapons, men saved their lives as well. The labor of POWs was used in private farms or in temples. At those times, as a rule, slaves did not try to escape, because they remembered the sacred rules of war: the captive gets ritually killed and can not belong to himself, he becames part of the one who captured him. In addition to captive slaves, in the last centuries of Šumer there were appeared slave-debtors, seized by their creditors until the repayment of the debt with interest. The fate of such slaves was much easier: to regain their former status, they needed only to be redeemed. As for slave captives, even having learned the language and getting a family, they could rarely hope for being released.