June 26, 2006

How to Recognize a Scribal School

Part 2: The Use of Literature and Myth Along with Specialized Akkadian Scribal Training in Late Bronze Age

Finally, this has taken a lot longer than I hoped it would. In my first post on how to identify a scribal school, I listed and commented on the formal training tablets that formed the core of a scribe's curriculum at Ugarit and Amarna. In this post, I will look at the role of myth and literature in scribal training at those same places. I will also cover some items left over from the first post and look at how specialized skills such as letter writing may have been taught. Much of this discussion will be speculative, for which I apologize in advance. Unlike the lexical lists discussed in the first post on this subject, the exact use of the material discussed below and where it fits into an organized curriculum is not at all clear. I have made a couple of only partially successful attempts to place this material within the formal curriculum but I am not altogether sure that I have been successful. As with the first post in this series, I have provided a summary and conclusion just before the references below. Those who don't want to wade through all the gory details may want to go there first and look at whatever details may be of interest.

One of the problems with this study is that unlike the study of the lexical lists some of which are known in multiple copies and extracts from a place like Ugarit, it is with the rare exception that any of the literary material I am about to discuss is so known. While I think there are convincing signs of the hand of students in some of this material, it is not completely certain that any of the tablets so far discovered is the work of students. It is nearly certain that comparable material was developed for education in Mesopotamian tablet houses (Lucas, 318-325) but the evidence from Ugarit, Amarna and even Emar and Boğazköy is at best circumstantial. Truthfully, so is most of the evidence from Mesopotamia (Lucas, 318). For this reason, it is not always certain which tablets were used or prepared in the course of scribal training and which were not. And among those purely literary or mythological texts but reflecting a "foreign" mythological context that may not have been used in training, for what were they used? And how does one tell the difference between correspondence intended to train a scribe in the art of letter writing and an actual letter? Or were actual letter used for training?

Some of the evidence from Ugarit further complicates the matter. On the one hand, in the archive of Rap'anu at Ugarit, Schaeffer found the "most extensive range of lexical texts (von Soldt, 179)," and only a couple of religious texts. However, a fairly large number of letters and several tables of measurement were found there. On the other hand, in the Lamaštu archive many literary and religious texts were discovered. Did Rap'anu run a kind of "trade tech" for aspiring letter writers while the Lamaštu School was more of a "university?" Or did Rap'anu provide only elementary training while others rounded out the scribe's education? There is no clear answers that these questions.

I begin with my translation of RS 17.80 from the House of the Scholar at Ugarit.

1 [To the divi]ne king
1b [say:(?)]

2 [Thus says Lugalib]ila, your priest of ablution. (ritual bath?)

3 [Concerning the matter] about which I am writing you, (in your) greatness,
4 [do not be neg]ligent.

5 [To the young (student) who] is sitting before you
6 do not be [neg]ligent.

7 [In the art of being a scribe, a]ny (trade) secret,
8 [reveal] it!

9 [The calculation t]able, settlement of accounts, any
10 [tricks?], reveal it (them)!

11 A secret [sign?], reveal it right away.

12 A sharpened reed, leather, tallow, (and) beaten (prepared?) clay
13 were given to this young (student).

14 [    ] when completed and (when in) good condition
15 [    ] take away.

16 [ to wr]ite in a letter and [
17 [    ] you, will still(?) know me.

18 [  a]ll that pertains to the a[rt of wri]ti[ng
19 do no[t be negl]igent.

Remember, things enclosed in [] are restored and things enclosed in () are add for clarification. Whenever you see a ?, it means that there is more than the usual amount of uncertainty. The double spaces between lines are a reflection of an inscribed line on the tablet.

My translation of this Akkadian "letter" is based on Nougayrol's reconstruction of the text of RS 17.80. His reconstruction is based in large part on a Sumerian version (RS 17.10) that is also from Ugarit. He also drew on several parallel texts from Mesopotamia. There are a few legible signs after line 19 but not enough to make any sense of them.

This is not a real letter. It is a work of literature in the form of a letter. I'll have more to say about it later.

How Was the Literary Material Used?

While I will suggest the possibility that the literary texts were graded, there can be little real question that such texts were part and parcel of scribal training at Ugarit and Amarna as well as everywhere else Akkadian was taught. I say this despite the caveats offered above. As von Soldt, 178, tells us,

Thus, it would seem likely that this category of texts was not copied for its own sake but was used as study material for apprentice scribes (as explicitly stated in one of the colophons) in order for them to practice the acquired knowledge of Sumerian and Akkadian in context.

From Amarna we have the šar tamhāi epic, EA 356, with its Hittite connections; the "Myth of Adapa and the South Wind," EA 356 and "The Myth of Nergal and Ereškigal," EA 357, with their Mesopotamian connections. "The Story of Kešši," EA 341, reflects a Hurrain tale (Izre'el, 18) and is itself written with very few ideograms. Both it and the šar tamhāi epic (EA 359) may have been imported from Hatti. A Hittite version of the šar tamhāi is also known (Izre'el, 72) from Hatti. At least in the Amarna Age there is a strong "international" element in the literary texts used in scribal training. Finally, from Amarna, is EA 348 composed of four fragments. Its genre is not at all clear but it is certainly some type of literature which does not appear to have any known close parallels (Izre'el, 64). It appears to involve the interpretation of a "sign" (ittu) that has appeared in the king's palace; there is some controversy about whether there is a sign or not. One interesting point is that the tablet says someone checks "the tables" for this "sign." Are they checking the tablets of a formal series? While perhaps not as pronounced as EA 356 and EA 357 as in others texts, all of these literary tablets from Amarna used a very elementary reparatory of Akkadian signs, mostly syllables. According to Izre'el, 8, the fragmentary literary text EA 376 "is written in an uncertain hand." Two other elements support the hypothesis that these texts were part of the scribal curriculum at Amarna. First are the presence of divider dots on several of the tablets. (On this see the discussion of the possibility that some of the literature was graded below.) Second, several of these tablets where found in the "pits," rather than the main archives and a few show signs of being "cancelled" shortly after writing (Izre'el, 9). Artzi 1990 and Artzi 1992 together provide a very good survey of the Amarna scholarly material and how it relates to Mesopotamian scribal training traditions. I have placed a brief discussion of the national origins of the masters and students at Amarna in the accompanying PDF file.

Turning to Ugarit, there are some forty-five Akkadian or Sumerian tablets containing literary texts. Approximately thirty-five of them were found with or near formal training series tablets (van Soldt, 207). They range from a likely excerpt of Atrahasis (RS 23.421) to the Enuma Anu Enlil (RS 23.38) to lamentations (RS 25.420+ for example) to model literary letters (like RS 17.80 in Akkadian which I translated above and RS 17.10, the same letter in Sumerian) to wisdom text (RS 22.439 for example) to incantations (for example RS 25.418) to poems (RS 25.130, RS 23.34+ and RS 25.434). This poem is of special interest because it is about early rulers and was found in three different scholarly archives at Ugarit. Much of this literature has Mesopotamian parallels. But some texts, like RS 22.439, "Šubê-awilim," are known from Emar (an Akadian near duplicate) and Boğazköy (in Hittite). RS 22.439 and the other two versions show Mesopotamian influence even if direct parallels cannot be demonstrated.

I want to spend some time discussing the wisdom text RS 22.439, "Šubê-awilim," because it is a text that appears to have been very popular in Syria and Anatoliia, because it has themes and subgenres that are seen elsewhere, including the Bible, and because the colophon of the copy from Ugarit is supportive of the idea that this type of text was used in training. The most complete discussion of the tablet and its Emar equivalent is by Dietrich who corrects some of the youth indiscretions of the third most complete discussion of the text (Smith). Gratefully he also recommends a few of my suggestions. Nougayrol who first published it and von Soden are also important contributors to the history of interpretation of RS 22.439. Keydana treats the Hittite version from Boğazköy in a very thorough manner. As I discussed in a previous post, van Soldt directs us to the colophon of RS 22.439, which reads,

13') By the hand of mŠip-ţi, the scribe (A.UM), son of Adb[u the scribe]
14') student of ALIM.SAG?[ ]
15') servant of Nabu and Nisaba (?)
16') servant of Marduk and Sarpanitum

Von Soldt, 41, wants us to pay particular attention to the fact that the teacher ALIM.SAG?[ ] is mentioned. I believe he is correct in saying that RS 22.439 is the work of a student, perhaps a very advanced student, but student scribe nonetheless. Here we have the most direct evidence that literature was used as part of the scribal training at Ugarit. That the same text is known from Emar and in Hittite from Boğazköy indicates that it had rather broad regional popularity. The fact that it is not known from elsewhere may be no more than an accident of discovery or it may indicate that it was only used regionally.

One of the expressions one encounters in RS 22.439 and Emar equivalent is DUMUri (I:9, II:6, II:32 equivalent [but only on the Emar version]), "my son," or just DUMUru (II:2), "son." In fact, Dietrich sees this text as a dialog between Šubê-awilim and his "father." Such language is commonly found in wisdom literature from Mesopotamia as well. It is also found in the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 1:8 for example. These designations remind us that in Mesopotamian texts (and perhaps here), the scribal student is called "son," and the master is called "father" and the students call each other "brothers" (Lucas, 312). From time to time, there is a worry that this language should to be taken literally in some contexts. See, for example, Crenshaw, 608, with regard to Proverbs 4:1-9 and 8:32-36. I will address the passages Crenshaw sites in more detail in a later post. For now, it will suffice to say that the language of these passages does not exclude a formal school setting. The issue is made more complex, however, by the fact that there were clearly scribal families where the actual father likely taught his actual son among others. For example, van Soldt (181, 212) identifies five scribal families where it is likely that at least some of the students were related to the teacher. In some cases, scribal skills were clearly passed from father to son to grandson at Ugarit.

I would also point out the structure of many of the sub-sections of RS 22.439. They follow a common pattern that one sees in wisdom literature from Mesopotamia to Egypt: an exhortation or admonition followed by a motivation. RS 22.439 I:21-25 is a good example:

Two Admonitions:
I:21 Do not open your mouth in the busy street.
I:22-23 Do not speak profanely of men when an opponent does not express his opinion

I:24 Indeed, you will obtain the fruit, the early fruit,
I:25 (namely) insult, treachery and enmity which will not be forgiven.

If you check the references, you will see that this translation draws on Smith, 233, and Dietrich, 43. I will provide philological notes when I post a detailed review of Dietrich's paper and a fresh English translation of this tablet at some later time. I believe this sub-genre is best described as "paraenesis." It reflects a common wisdom (and legal) genre that appears over the whole of the Near East from some of the earliest wisdom texts to well into the common era. Proverbs 24:15-16 is a close structural parallel to RS 22.439 I:21-25 but many others could be cited. Is this a clue to the presence of a school text or tradition? Probably not by itself. But, combined with other evidence, it may be indicative of the influence of formal scribal training. But please remember that we are trying to develop criteria for the presence of a scribal school not just the presence of a formally trained scribe.

The combined weight of "cancelled" tablets at Amarna, the writing errors in several of the tablets from Ugarit and Amarna, the "dividers" in some texts from Amarna, the colophon of RS 22.439 and the possibility of some of the texts being graded (see below) support the evidence from Mesopotamia and Egypt that literary texts were copied, at least sometimes from dictation, as part of the formal training of scribes in a school setting in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age.

Another genre of texts that appears to have been used in scribal training is seen in several incantation texts. Some eleven such texts are known from Ugarit of which RS 25.129+ is a representative example. Some are single incantations others are collections of excerpts. All have Mesopotamian parallels. While from a later time, we have very explicit evidence that incantations were used in scribal training (Pearce, 187) in Mesopotamia.

It is tempting to see this "international" element has an indication of the presence of a scribal school. After all, many of the mythological and religions texts in these archives do not appear to match what we know of the local mythology and religion. However, the Amarna Age was an "international" age with wide and frequent contact and communications between Egypt, Hatti, Mitanni and Babylon. This fact should dampen our enthusiasm for using this factor as an indication of the presence of a scribal school. But, when taken in combination with other indicators international elements in the literature should not be neglected either.

Even though the fast majority of the Akkadian literary and mythological texts from Ugarit were found in the same archives as lexical texts, exactly how these texts were used in not completely clear. In addition, the large number of incantation tablets found in the same archives but not houses of the priests indicate that they had a role in the training process. As von Soldt, 172, notes there seems to be a significant number of errors in many of these texts, which indicates that the student scribes had not reached full proficiency. My suggestion that some of them may have been "graded" would lead one to think they were used in parallel with the formal training lists to reinforce learning and hone skills.

Was the Literary Material Graded?

I want to begin my answer to this question with a strange tablet from Amarna, EA 356, that I mentioned a few weeks ago, "The Myth of Adapa and the South Wind" and another equally strange tablet, EA 357, "The Myth of Nergal and Ereškigal." The Amarna tablet EA 356 represents the oldest and most complete version of a story also known from three fragments from the Ashurbanipal library. EA 357 is the only known version of "The Myth of Nergal and Ereškigal." Both are in the Babylonian dictum as opposed to the Amarna dictum and both are written in what Izre'el (55) calls "plene." By which he means written almost totally without ideograms or determinatives. He notes it "reminds us strongly of similar spelling which are amply found in Hurrain, Hittite and Hittito-Akkadian texts." Both texts have another unique feature. They both have red or, in the case of EA 357, occasionally red painted over with black, dots that serve, for the most part, as word or phrase dividers. The extremely fragmentary EA 372 has the same features. This device is apparently borrowed from Egyptian practice. Izre'el (46) is uncertain whether or not the tablets were imported or were local copies. He is also uncertain as to whether they were written in the same hand but he appears to be leaning against this theory (47).

What I want to point out is that a novice scribe, having successfully completed little more than his Tu-ta-ti could have written either of these tablets from dictation. And if not that, he could certainly have read them with the help of the small painted dots. There could well be a reason that Hurrain, Hittite and Hittito-Akkadian texts where often written in this way, so they could be read without the need for the whole Sumero-Akkadian training regiment. What is interesting here is that the novice scribe learning Akkadian at the Egyptian capital is exposed to what are certainly Mesopotamian traditions perhaps near the start of his formal training.

Are there other literary tablets that may show signs of grading at an intermediate level? Perhaps. The "(Just) Sufferer," RS 25.460, contains only six ideograms not counting for the god Marduk and all of these signs where introduced with the study of Lú=ša or before. In fact four of them are certainly from Harra=hubullu and one is likely from Harra=hubullu. RS 22.219+, "En Marge' de Gilgameš," as Nougayrol called it, does not seem to me to have been written with all the bells and whistles of a mature Akkadian scribe either. But both RS 25.460 and RS 22.219+, would take more training than a novice scribe having only completed his Tu-ta-ti. But I don't think it would take Series Izi or Diri either. In the attached PDF, you will find a preliminary analysis of the ideograms in RS 25.460 and RS 22.219+ and a discussion of its use of ideograms. The most complex ideograms in RS 22.219+ are about at the level that one might expect from a student who had mastered Harra=hubullu and Lú=ša. On the other hand, in order to read or write "Récit de Déluge," RS 22.421, the scribe would need to have studied Diri or at least know ideograms that first appear there (see PDF file). And to read or write a text like RS 22.439, "Šubê-awilim." one would likely need to be nearly an Izi master. As you can see from a previous post discussing this issue and the accompanying PDF file, there is not sufficient evidence to support a definitive claim that the writing and reading of literary texts followed the formal curriculum but on the surface, there is at least an indication that this was the case.

If it is the case that these texts are graded there are two possibilities as to how they got that way. First, it is conceivable that the master scribes used graded versions of these texts for training. One might call this "curriculum graded." Second, and to my mind more likely, these tablets may reflect the level of the students as they wrote them from dictation. One might call this "skill level grading." The fact that some of the texts that seem to be partially dependent in spelling skills are nonetheless inconsistent as to grade level heightens the likelihood that they are "skill lever graded" as opposed to "curriculum graded."

Training in Special Vocational Skills

It is known from Mesopotamian sources that student scribes used prototype letters to learn the skill of writing correspondence (Fayne 6.7). Is there evidence of this kind of training from Amarna or Ugarit? Yes, Izre'el, points to the very fragmentary EA 343 as "probably . . . an exercise for writing letter formulae." One should also note the "letter" written on the "vertical section" of EA 351. Aside from this "vertical section, EA 351 is a fragment of diri tablet 2 (see my first post in this series). See also EA 354.

As I noted above, in the archive of Rap'anu at Ugarit, Schaeffer found the "most extensive range of lexical texts (von Soldt, 179)," and only a couple of religious texts. Scribal training was clearly part of the activity of those who contributed to this archive. But the archive also contained a large number of letters. While many of these letters such as the famous "Letter to the General (RS 20.33)" are unquestionably real letters of considerable historic value, one cannot help but wonder if some of them were used for training in letter writing. RS 20.194 (158, 62) is a very fragmentary tablet that is written in quite an unusual and seemly, inexperienced hand. Nougayrol, 158, called the writing "grossière." RS 20.15, a more complete letter has many of the same elements in its writing. Others like, RS 20.17, are not so obviously grossière but are sill a little on the gross side. If Izre'el and Singer are correct, then the "Letter to the General (RS 20.33)" may have been in the neighborhood of two hundred years older than most of the material in the Rap'anu archive. Could this indicate that it was kept in this archive as a "prototype letter" for training? Barring other evidence, which does not seem to be forthcoming, an affirmative answer would be pure speculation.

One of the problems in identifying "real" letters from student exercises is that we lack multiple copies in different hands that would go a long ways to support such identification. Why this is is a complex question that may reflect the use of something other than clay for practice in letter writing as well as literature and other school exercises. We know that professional scribe used "writing boards," wooden boxes with a wax writing surface (Symington). The best evidence is from Boğazköy but RS 19.53 from Ugarit uniquely mentions ţup-pa ša iškuri, "tablet of wax"(Symington, 123 n26)" and RS 34.136, also found at Ugarit, refers to "writing board(s)," GIŠ.HUR as opposed to GIŠ.HUR. Both of these tablets may well have been written in Karkameš and sent to Ugarit. There is however, no evidence that student scribes used tablets of wax unless the mention of tallow in the pseudo-letter RS 17.80 from the House of the Scholar indicates this use. One problem is that the wax normally used on writing boards was normally beeswax not tallow based wax, paraffin.

The other option, seen most clearly from Amarna is that most of the student tablets were destroyed.

Like training in the writing and drafting of letters some (all?) scribes learned how to compose legal documents (Fayne, 6.6). Other genres of Akkadian texts found in some abundance in the Rap'anu archive at Ugarit are fifteen tablets containing judicial texts and another thirteen economic texts. It is hard to be certain, but these also could have been used in scribal vocational training. That does not mean that they are not also, like the letters, legitimate judicial documents. They range from adoptions (RS 21.226 written on a cylinder) to wills (RS 20.146) to regulations of conduct between two groups (RS 20.203B). Among the economic tablets is a list of 10 persons (RS 20.07). The first four names begin with nu and the last three begin with abdi. As I indicated in the first post in this series, this is reminiscent of the alphabetic text (KTU 5.1) of names beginning with "y."

Short Summary and Conclusion

Literary and mythological texts were used as part of scribal training in the Late Bronze Age although it is not clear at what point or how, although it is likely that they were copied by the student from dictation. While some pseudo-letters may have been used to train scribe in letter writing it is nearly certain that real letters were also used. The same applies to the use of economic and judicial texts in training. Many literary and mythological texts used in scribal training appear to have foreign, usually Mesopotamian, affinities. There are certain idioms, like the use of family designations to denote students (sons) and master teachers (fathers). In addition, wisdom traditions and genres may be indicative of training exercises. Another indication of a scribal school may be the plene spelling of Akkadian where one might expect to see ideograms.

While these indicators may be diagnostic of the presence of a scribal school, they may also be nothing more than diagnostic of a formally trained scribe who may or may not have completed his or her training. However, in my view, the larger the collection of one or more of these indicators from the same place and time the more likely we have evidence of a scribal school.

Update: June 29, 2006
Fixed references to Akkadian poem from Ugarit


Artzi, Pinhas, "Studies in the Library of the AmarnaArchive" Bar-Ilan Studies in Assyriology dedicated to Pinhas Artzi, Klein, Jacob and Aaron Skaist, eds., Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture, Ramat-Gan: Bar-Han University Press, 1990, 139-156

Artzi, Pinhas, "Nippur Elementary Schoolbooks in the 'West,'" Nippur at the Centennial: Papers Read at the 35e RencontreAssyriologique Internationale, Philadelphia, 1988, Maria de Jong Ellis, ed., Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, Philadelphia: The University Museum. 1992, 1-5

Symington, Dorit, “Late Bronze Age Writing Boards and Their Uses: Textual Evidence from Anatolia and Syria,” Anatolian Studies, 41, 1991, 111-124

Dietrich, Manfried, "Der Dialog zwischen Šubê-amēli und seinem 'Vater'," Ugarit Forschungen 23, Münster: Verlag Butzon and Bercher Keverlaer, 1991, 33-68.

Izre'el, Shlomo, The Amarna Scholarly Tablets, Groningen: Styx, 1997

Izre'el, Shlomo and Itamar Singer, The General's Letter from Ugarit: A Linguistic and Historical Reevaluation of RS 20.33 (Ugaritica V, No. 20), Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1990

Keydana, Götz, "Anhang: Die hethitische Version," Ugarit Forschungen 23, Münster: Verlag Butzon and Bercher Keverlaer, 1991, 69-74.

Lucas, Christopher J., "The Scribal-House in Ancient Mesopotamia, History of Education Quarterly, 19, 3, (Autumn, 1979), 305-332

Nougayrol, Jean, "Textes Suméro-Accadiens des Archives et Bibliothèques Privées d'Ugarit," Ugaritica V, Mission de Ras Shamra, XVI, Paris: P. Geuthner, 1968, 1-446

Millard, A. R., "Another Babylonian Chronicle Text," Iraq, 26, 1964, 12-35

Moran, William, The Amarna Letters, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987

Pearce, Laurie E., "Statements of Purpose: Why the Scribes Wrote," Near eastern Studies in Honor of William W. Hallo, Mark Cohen, et al editors, Bethesda Maryland: CDL Press. 1993, 185-194

Smith, Duane E., "Wisdom Genres in RS 22.439," Ras Shamra Parallels; the Texts from Ugarit and the Hebrew Bible II, Loren R. Fisher ed, Duane E. Smith and Stan Rummel assoc. eds. Analecta Orientallia, 50, Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1975, 215-247

Soldt, W. H. van, "Babylonian Lexical, Religious and Literary Texts, and Scribal Education at Ugarit and its Implications for the Alphabetic Literary Texts," Ugarit: ein ostmediterranes Kulturzentrum in Alten Orient: Ergebnisse und Perspektiven der Forshung, Dietrich and Loretz eds., Abhandlungen zur Literatur Alt-Syrien-Palästinas; Bd. 7, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995, 171-212

Posted by DuaneSmith at June 26, 2006 09:40 AM | Read more on Scribal Schools |

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