Sumerian Values and Beliefs
The Sumerians of the ancient world were a highly influential and fascinating people. They were pioneers and visionaries. Their participation in the development of early civilization led to a system of values and beliefs that set them apart from all other ancient cultures. In the aspects of religion, law and education they were particularly distinct.
The Sumerian religion was not a happy one. There was no shining golden afterlife, only pain and suffering in Kur. Cosmically located between the earth's crust and the primeval sea, and incredibly similar in description to the Greek Hades. It is in Kur that the first resurrection story takes place. An idea that reappears in later religions, but this account is most assuredly Sumerian. The story is of Inanna, a goddess seeking to hold sway in both the "Great Above" and "Great Below". One uniquely Sumerian aspect of her descent in to the netherworld is that, along with her jewels and finery, she gathers divine laws in preparation for the journey. This shows the underworld to be a place still governed by a strict law code. Even in death, Sumerians could not escape the law. This coincides with the Sumerian belief in the inherently evil nature of man, in that even after death men still require laws they must adhere to.
Another facet of Sumerian religion, that is unique to their culture is the absolute inferiority of men to their gods. In most other religions of the region the faithful believer is generally afforded some comfort upon death, though not necessarily equally applied to all those who practice it. Beginning with the Sumerian creation story man is never seen as able of attaining any sort of paradise. The Sumerian paradise, similar to the Hebrew Eden, was never a place where men dwelled. Only the immortal could dwell in paradise, never mortal men. Another effect of the Sumerian belief that men were born evil and would remain so. No salvation, or even an original divine state exists in Sumerian religion. A belief uncommon in many ancient religions.
Unlike even Egyptian religion, where wealth and status were determinants in the afterlife of the deceased, Sumerian kings were still bound to the same Kur as all mortals.
The laws of Sumer were also a deeply ingrained part of Sumerian culture. They put great value in the laws that gave civility to this first civilization. Their use of legal precedent is particularly impressive. This concept would not reappear in common use for centuries. Meticulous record keeping allowed Sumerian courts to look back at old cases and use the rulings in similar cases as part of the legal process. Not only did the Sumerians have the first law codes, they had a complex legal system to accompany them. Fair practice in law through the use of detailed law codes, a structured system and fair application of the law were ideals of Sumerian civilization.
Though many oversimplify, or misunderstand Sumerian law codes, particularly that of Hammurabi, as a simple eye for eye, tooth for tooth law code, it, as well as the earlier law codes of Lipthar Ishtar and Ur Nammu, were reasonable and detailed lists of assorted crimes, and their associated punishments, most commonly monetary compensation. This is distinct to the Sumerians. Fees and fines would come back in to use many years later, but as early as 2000 bc Sumerians were paying fines for broken bones and damaged appendages. No other early civilization would develop such comprehensive codes, with punishments as progressive as fines. Hebrew law is far bloodier, with exile, and death as far more common levies on serious crimes. In law cases involving two citizens of Sumer, the Sumerian law codes were far more forgiving than Mosaic law involving two Hebrews.
As early as 3000 bc Sumerian scribes were laying the foundation for a school system that would produce scribes for the myriad administrative duties that would become integral to this burgeoning civilization. Clay tablet "textbooks" dating from the 2500s are evidence of the growing importance of education, to keep up with the growing importance of written records. Cuneiform, the phonetic form of the Sumerian language was their greatest contribution to civilization, and is distinct to their culture. The concept of scribes, and written languages, would travel from Sumer, to Egypt and beyond. More advanced than Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform is a unique, and difficult. It is no wonder that it necessitated an education system to teach young scribes, who would specialize in specific functions, recording law, or business records, and even literary works.
The growth of Sumerian civilization made scribes and record keeping integral in its development. These were no lowly pencil pushers however. Scribes, were affluent, men from upper class families. Their fathers were wealthy, important in Sumerian society and so were these scribes. The vast scope of civilization was built upon their work. Though scribes were of great importance in many ancient cultures, solely the Sumerians would elevate the job to such levels, or invest so much in their training.
With education comes the universal dilemma of forcing young boys to withstand it, and so we have the first documented case of "apple polishing". The idea of "apple polishing" is by no means unique, but its account gives us a window through which to view the Sumerian education system, and in particular, its harshness. These boys were training to be scribes, not soldiers, and yet these schools were conducted with a nearly martial level of discipline that included caning for what is in essence poor penmanship, talking, and skipping class. Harsh punishments would be the norm in education but the liberal use of caning, followed by the father's active participation in the basic bribery of the teacher is something not found in early civilizations, especially not documented form.
The civilization of the ancient Sumerians was broad in scope, incredibly advanced, and encompassed the ideals and values of its people. Their beliefs regarding religion, their strict application of law, and their specialized education system are all facets of the Sumerians that embody these values. Copied, mimicked, and stolen, their ideas reappear in many civilizations of the ancient world, but only to the Sumerians are they truly original and unique.