Home / History / The advice of an Akkadian father to his son (2200 BC)

The advice of an Akkadian father to his son (2200 BC)

The Akkadian Empire was the first Semitic empire and is considered to be the first empire in history. It was established in Mesopotamia (circa 2334 – 2154 BC), unifying the Akkadian and Sumerian speakers. When the empire was unmade, its people were divided into two nations; Assyria and Babylonia.

Οι πρώτες γραμμές του πρωτότυπου κειμένου (Cuneiform tablet Κ 13770) (photo)
The first lines of the original text (Cuneiform tablet Κ 13770) (photo)

“Do not set out to stand around in the assembly. Do not loiter where there is a dispute, for in the dispute they will have you as an observer. Then you will be made a witness for them, and they will involve you in a lawsuit to affirm something that does not concern you. In case of a dispute, get away from it, disregard it! If a dispute involving you should flare up, calm it down. A dispute is a covered pit, a wall which can cover over its foes; it brings to mind what one has forgotten and makes an accusation against a man. Do not return evil to your adversary; requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, maintain justice for your enemy, be friendly to your enemy.

Give food to eat, beer to drink, grant what is requested, provide for and treat with honor. At this, one’s god takes pleasure. It is pleasing to Shamash[1], who will repay him with favor. Do good things, be kind all your days.

Do not honor a slave girl in your house; she should not rule your bedroom like a wife, do not give yourself over to slave girls….Let this be said among your people: ‘The household which a slave girl rules, she disrupts.’ Do not marry a prostitute, whose husbands are legion, an Ishtar-woman[2] who is dedicated to a god, a kulmashitu-woman[3]. . . .When you have trouble, she will not support you, when you have a dispute she will be a mocker. There is no reverence or submissiveness in her. Even if she is powerful in the household, get rid of her, for she pricks up her ears for the footsteps of another.

My son, if it be the wish of a ruler that you belong to him, if you are entrusted with his closely guarded seal, open his treasure house and enter it, for no one but you may do it. Uncounted wealth you will find inside, but do not covet any of that, nor set your mind on a secret crime, for afterwards the matter will be investigated and the secret crime which you committed will be exposed.

Do not speak ill, speak only good. Do not say evil things, speak well of people. He who speaks ill and says evil—people will waylay him because of his debt to Shamash. Do not talk too freely, watch what you say. Do not express your innermost thoughts even when you are alone. What you say in haste you may regret later. Exert yourself to restrain your speech.

Worship your god every day. Sacrifice and pious utterance are the proper accompaniment of incense. Have a freewill offering for your god, for this is proper toward a god. Prayer, supplication, and prostration offer him daily, then your prayer will be granted, and you will be in harmony with god.”

[1] Shamash was a deity related to the sun (“Samas” means “sun”), belonging to the early Mesopotamian religions.

[2] Ishtar was a deity of the Mesopotamia religion (from circa 3500 BC until its decline in the 5th century AD when it faced Christianity).

[3] The kulmashitu-women were women with specific religious duties and postulates; among them the singing of hymns during religious rituals. Some of them got married, but most did not.

Η Ακκαδική Αυτοκρατορία επί Naram-Sin (2254-2218 π.Χ.) (photo)
The Akkadian Empire under the rule of Naram-Sin (2254-2218 BC) (photo)

The text above has the alternative title Counsels of Wisdom. What’s particularly interesting is the fact that it could just as well have been written in the modern days, as the values that the anonymous father tries to communicate to his son are timeless. The advice can be separated into deterring and prompting ones.

The deterring ones start with the advice not to “stand around” and not “loiter” wasting his time –perhaps a more general urging to be productive. If he is to witness a dispute on an issue that does not concern him directly he should not pay attention to what is said, as he might get in trouble by being forced to participate in a legal battle. It’s like the father is telling his son to “mind his own business” –if you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas, don’t poke your nose where it doesn’t belong.

The parent’s advice concerning women are particularly interesting as at a first glance they appear to be old-fashioned, but a closer look reveals a timeless value. The easy pleasures should not displace good judgement and the “slave girls” or the “prostitutes” must be avoided, “even if they are powerful in the household”. The father considers that it is something else that his son ought to look for in a woman, who is presented as something more than an object of delight or merely a servant. There is much greater importance in the attributes of respect, support when he is troubled, dedication and standing by him when he faces accusations by strangers. The woman “rules the bedroom” but is not restricted to it.

The advice not to steal and speak ill of others are expressed as warnings –if the youth does these things his compatriots will turn against him. The moral codes are here centered on the basis of coexistence with the other members of his society and only secondarily on any divine will. We can also note the father’s certainty that if his son commits a crime he will surely be found out. There is, therefore, a certain trust in the keeping of the rule of law by the authorities.

The next warning must be more directly related to the circumstances of the time. For someone to openly express his inner thoughts in public was perhaps something that would get him in trouble; freedom of expression is a more recent privilege. “Exert yourself to restrain your speech”, he says, trying to inculcate the usefulness, if not the necessity, of discipline in his public presence.

This idea of discipline is related in the last paragraph of the text, where we find a prompting advice. The young man is called to self-limit himself in his expression, to make an “esoteric” practice of self-control. We should not be, therefore, surprised that the means by which the father suggests him to obtain this needed composure is reverence. Sacrifices, pious words, incense, offerings to god, prayers, supplications and pilgrimages must be in the daily routine of his son in order to achieve the aimed harmony.

Perhaps the most memorable advice, though, is the one offered in the first paragraph. The young man is exhorted to become a friend of his enemy, preceding, thus, Confucius and Buddha by almost two millennia and Jesus by almost two and a half. Reciprocation of injustice is constricted; on the contrary, evil must be countered with kindness and justice, with offerings of food and beer. To receive injustice must not lead the young man to become unjust himself. The prompting of kindness is not made in fear of god or any other punishment. As we saw, fear of consequences is only mentioned later in the text and has to do with what the son can expect to have happen to him by his fellow men -not by god- and only when he himself commits a crime -not when he does not act in kindness.

Even though in this short text we have a father trying to infuse certain values in his son for his benefit, we can see how these values, if honored by the sum of the people, lead to social harmony –not just to his son’s good life. Therefore, kindness is proposed here as a connecting link among men. It is meant as a vehicle for the delivery of harmony to the people, not as an excuse for boasting or to obtain a privileged position in the world. In this sense, kindness is promoted as a tool to use; what’s important to the father, it seems, is the solving of problems, not to merely moralize.

We must take another look at the second paragraph and how the text changes from the second person to the third and back to the second:

Give food to eat, beer to drink, grant what is requested, provide for and treat with honor. At this, one’s god takes pleasure. It is pleasing to Shamash, who will repay him with favor. Do good things, be kind all your days.”

While the exhortations are in the second person and are aimed at his son, concerning the god’s actions the father chooses to speak in a more abstract manner. He says that “one’s god” takes pleasure in kindness and gives favors to him. The father doesn’t seem to offer a promise of good favor to his son in particular with certainty –as he would if he said “your god will take pleasure at your actions” and “he will repay you with favor”. The young man is called to be kind even if he knows that in his case not everything might turn up favorable to him. The Mesopotamian gods are anyway presented to us being capricious, in the myths of the region. As we can see elsewhere (as in The Dialogue of Pessimism), the Mesopotamians were often pessimistic about the turn of events in their lives, when gods did not offer the comforts that might be expected for good behavior or when they contemplated about the vanity of existence (see here for a presentation).

The very fact that this text is written so long ago, shows that these values are constant and the differences that separate the time of the Akkadians with our own do not also separate the human nature of the ancients with ours. Moral values are shown to be eternal and unchanged, independent of religious, social or other particularities; we might say, they are values outside of history.

I owe the discovery of this wonderful short text to the youtube user Sargon of Akkad‘s channel Ancient Recitations, where he provides an audio version of the father’s advice, and his own commentary on it.

Here are both

 

Check Also

The impossibility of Wittgenstein’s ethics and a solution by Sam Harris

“Nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it“ …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *