Sumerian, originating in Southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), was the first written language, starting around 3200 BCE. Of the many genres of Sumerian texts is a particularly fascinating collection—Sumerian proverbs. Sumerian is already extremely challenging to decipher because the language is still somewhat of a mystery to us; add in another layer of cultural meaning and you are presented with something that can come across as completely baffling. For that reason, there are people who spend their lives puzzling over translations of Sumerian proverbs and writing lengthy articles about their meanings. (Disclaimer: I am not one of those people.)

Here are five examples of ancient Mesopotamian wisdom, and my crude attempts to understand them:

1. “Something that has never happened since the beginning of time: a young woman has not farted in front of her husband.”

What Does It Mean?
Anyone can make a good first impression, but eventually they will show their true colors. Or maybe this is a casual observation that women would rather act ladylike in front of their husbands.

The Takeaway:
Though I’m positive that this statement is false, isn’t it good to know that the Sumerians also appreciated some light bathroom humor?

Collection of Sumerian Proverbs. Image Credit: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative


2. “A man who is aroused eats salt. A woman who is aroused is dragged.”

What Does It Mean?
I have no explanation for why men would eat salt—is this an ancient strategy for curbing lust? Is it because salty things are delicious? The latter half of this proverb seems clearer to me—female arousal is not a good thing.

The Takeaway:
Slut shaming has been around for thousands of years.

3. “Using a donkey instead of a sheep won’t give you any omens.”

What Does It Mean?
Finding a cheap substitute won’t do the job as well as the real thing.

The Takeaway:
Actually, if you know a little bit about Sumerian culture, this one makes sense. The Mesopotamians were big on trying to divine the future, and one of the most common ways of doing this was by extispicy—slaughtering a sheep and analyzing the liver for anomalies.

Model of a sheep’s liver. Image Credit: The British Museum


4. “The fox did not build his own house, so he got a job working on his friend’s house instead.”

What Does It Mean?
I honestly don’t know, but here’s my guess: If you can’t afford to make something for yourself, then go work somewhere else until you can afford it. I don’t know why a fox would be a construction worker, though.


Collection of Sumerian proverbs via The Schoyen Collection

5. “To pour beer with unwashed hands, to spit without trampling on it, to sneeze without covering it with dust, to fondle a woman mid-day without cover, are forbidden by Utu.”

What Does It Mean?
Don’t be a rude jerk, because the gods will be really mad about it.

The Takeaway:
Apparently, we have at least a few similar ideas about what is rude or disgusting. Serving food without washing your hands or spitting on the ground where everyone can just walk on it is pretty gross, and nobody likes PDA. I don’t imagine that many modern religions find these to be abominations to God, though. Except for the mid-day fondling.

If you enjoyed these, you can find many more proverbs on ETCSL: The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.