THE HARPS THAT ONCE . . . Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Translated by Thorkild Jocobsen. 498 pp. New Haven and London : Yale University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-300-07278-3 (pbk.)
I currently have three anthologies of Sumerian-Akkadian literature on my shelves: Stephanie Dalley's 'Myths from Mesopotamia' (1989), Benjamin R. Foster's 'From Distant Days : Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia' (1995), and the present book. All three are by specialists and are designed for the general reader; all, within the limits of their shared conventional viewpoint, are excellent; and anyone with a serious interest in this remote and fascinating literature will want to have all three.
The fact that all three are by specialists, however, raises a problem. For what it means is that we are being given is the official, orthodox, and, as it were, sanitized view of this literature, one based on a general consensus of academics as to what it is about and what its words mean.
Although I'm not a specialist myself but merely an enthusiastic Sumerophile, it's generally understood that knowledge of Sumerian and Akkadian is still in an imperfect state, and that 'definitions' of words in these languages should not be seen as fixed and more or less final, as they are in languages such as Latin or Greek, but should rather be seen as currently fashionable educated guesses by specialists, guesses which may turn out to be wrong.
Personally I doubt very much that the use by these writers of the word "gods," for example, accurately reflects what the ancients really meant. I also find their use of the word "myth" highly questionable, since I think that the poems and stories we are dealing with, far from being mere "myths" or falsehoods, are in fact a distant echo of events that actually occurred in history.
In other words, various and sometimes rather subtle kinds of scholarly distortion, a distortion which could be quite _innocent_ in intent, can creep into translations, and we cannot afford to assume that what is on the page must be right since a specialist put it there.
Let me repeat that I'm not accusing Sumerologists and Assyriologists of being scoundrels. I'm merely suggesting that in a field as complex and filled with difficulties as this, there will always be room for alternative views, views such as those of linguist and scholar Zecharia Sitchin whose '12th Planet' everyone who is interested in Sumer should read.
An extreme example of the sort of 'distortion' I am talking about occurs in Jacobsen's translation of 'Inanna's Descent.' Here are a few lines from the opening, with my obliques added to indicate line breaks:
"Inanna had / from the upper heaven / her heart set / on the netherworld. / My lady forsook heaven, / forsook earth, / went down into Hades" (page 207).
My questions are these: Is this a 'myth' or a poetic account of an actual historical event? Are Inanna and the other "gods" really "gods," or are they the living flesh-and-blood persons the Sumerians considered them to be? And how on earth did "Hades," a Graeco-Latin notion which will immediately conjure up a vivid image in the mind of anyone who has read Homer or Virgil, get into this far more ancient text from a wholly different culture?
Jacobsen's 'Inanna's Descent' is a long text of 28 pages, and I don't know how many times Jacobsen uses the word "Hades," but I count eleven instances on pages 208-209 alone. It's easy to see why he has chosen to use "Hades." It starts with his notion that "a lower earth," one that is beneath or under ours, must be understood as underground. But don't we refer to Australia as 'down under' ? and isn't it possible that what is "below" or "under" us could just as easily refer to a land in the southern hemisphere, a land such as Africa, and that the "darkness" in this poem might be the "darkness" of African mines ?
But whatever the case, "Hades," with its classical associations, is definitely misleading, as is the use of "myth," "god," "deity," "name," and a host of other words. If we turn to Stephanie Dalley's somewhat more technical translation of 'The Descent of Inanna,' we will find that she has been much more cautious and has not used the word "Hades" at all. Instead she wisely leaves the word in the original language, giving it as "Kurnugi" :
"To Kurnugi, land of [no return], / Ishtar ... was [determined] to go; / To the dark house, dwelling of Erkalla's god, / To the house which those who enter cannot leave, / . . . / To the house where those who enter are deprived of light, / . . . / They see no light, they dwell in darkness . . ." (page 155).
In the same sort of darkness, one might add, as experienced by slaves kept in mines. Is this Jacobsen's "Hades" or Sitchin's African mines ? I don't know, but I wouldn't blithely assume that the academic establishment must be right and that the matter is settled. There will always be room for alternative points-of-view, no matter how discomfiting they may be to those of fixed views.
Jacobsen's huge anthology been arranged as follows : Dumuzi Texts; Royal Lovesongs; Hymns to Gods; Myths; Epics; Admonitory History; Hymns to Temples; Laments for Temples. All been provided with their own brief introductions, and all gaps and losses of text in the original tablets have been indicated in the translations. In addition, all texts have brief and helpful footnotes.
The book also includes a brief Introduction, and is rounded out with a list of sources and a detailed 10-page Index. In size it is a large 8vo (9 by 6 inches), is beautifully printed on excellent paper with spacious margins, bound in wrappers that might have been sturdier, but sadly has one of those detestable glued spines that crack when opened.
The limits of this book are the limits of the official point-of-view. Within these limits Jacobsen's book becomes a true labor of love, a wonderfully readable literary treatment of some of the world's most ancient, fascinating and beautiful literature by an outstanding specialist, and one that can be strongly recommended to all sensitive readers, though they shouldn't take it as gospel but as something vastly more interesting.